University of Melbourne staff undertake longest strike in the university’s history
Staff at the University of Melbourne (UoM) have joined the picket line alongside the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) in a week-long industrial action strike from August 28 to September 3 to negotiate better working conditions, with the potential to strike longer if demands are not met by university management.
Negotiations for a new Enterprise Agreement between UoM and the NTEU have been stagnant for more than a year, resulting in NTEU members from various faculties including Arts, Law, library services, student services and Fine Arts at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) campus initiating the industrial action.
UoM’s NTEU branch president, David Gonzalez, said that issues surrounding secure work, pay increases that kept up with inflation, flexible work options, more manageable workloads, restrictions on restructuring courses, and more generous parental and carers leave were at the forefront of the union’s demands.
“The university hasn’t given a proposal on any of those things except parental leave,” Mr Gonzalez said.
They treat us like any stakeholder and not as the people that care deeply about the students and this institution.
Mr Gonzalez describes university management as “a master of the system” when asked how conversations at the negotiation table had progressed.
“I think they know exactly what they need to do to be considered bargaining in good faith.”
A UoM spokesperson told Inner City News that management had “responded to the union’s claims but have not accepted them all.”
“The UoM has, and will continue, to engage constructively and in good faith with the unions in negotiating the substantive issues raised in bargaining,” the spokesperson said.
One of the NTEU’s biggest concerns is insecure work at UoM, where some staff have been kept on casual contracts for up to 10 years, not knowing if they’ll be rehired the next year.
James Murphy is a lecturer and tutor in political science at the university and a key driver of the strike. While he has been in a dedicated teaching role for the past five years, he said that management had refused him an ongoing job.
“In terms of my own sense of worth, it’s like acid on your personal worth,” Mr Murphy told Inner City News.
They don’t seem to value the work that I do, they don’t think that I’m worth guaranteeing a future for.
The NTEU has proposed an 80 per cent target for decasualisation as part of the agreement, which Mr Murphy claimed the university had “refused systematically to engage with”.
“I don’t have a secure job, I am constantly applying for secure work at UoM and elsewhere and doing research in my free time to be competitive for those jobs – to do all of that and teach three big subjects in the under grad, how can I possibly give students the proper focus and attention?”
As well as negotiating with the union, the university is also facing legal battles surrounding wage theft.
Among the $80 million of wage theft in the university sector across Australia, UoM alone has allegedly underpaid staff more than $45 million.
“It’s just an injustice to have this crazy, wealthy institution stealing money from its most vulnerable workers and then not taking seriously the need to give people ongoing work,” Mr Gonzalez said.
The week-long strike will be one of the longest Australian university strikes since the 1850s, with Mr Murphy describing the current working conditions at UoM as a “crisis”.
“We don’t want to strike, I would much rather be in the classroom and so many people doing this have said that,” Mr Murphy said.
“I was really scared about how students would take our action, but it’s gone so much better than I could’ve imagined - our working conditions are their learning conditions.”
Various events will be held throughout the week for students and the community to join in solidarity of UoM staff, including picket rallies and teach-in lessons.
Donations can also be made to the NTEU Defence Fund to help support staff that will be striking without pay. •
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