Yesterday, for the fifth day this semester, staff and students at the University of Sydney undertook industrial action, going on strike to protest the offer that university management have made for the next enterprise agreement. For me, this meant that I didn't have the small group I usually have on a Wednesday morning. Since this is also the last week of classes for the semester, our faculty committee meeting was spent as a time of rest and celebration, and the international students' Bible study in the afternoon had a more leisurely feel to it as well. Overall, all this meant that yesterday was a relatively relaxing day for me. For students who had classes cancelled, it seems that most of them welcomed the chance to stay at home and study, whilst still being somewhat frustrated by the fact that they were missing out on a good part of this semester's education!
Since this level of industrial action hasn't been seen for a long time at Sydney Uni, I decided to spend some time trying to wade through the mixed messages to see what I thought of it all.
From the point of view of the unions - the Professional Staff Union and the National Tertiary Education Union - the strikes are a last-resort action to protect the job security and working conditions of staff, which in turn protects the quality of education for students, and the quality of research in the university. I was given a flyer with nine reasons "Why NTEU members are taking a stand", which I had a little think about.
1. Commitment to finalise bargaining. Since enterprise bargaining is now in its tenth month, I am sure everyone involved would like the negotiations to reach a mutual agreement as quickly as possible. It seems a little silly, however, to use this to justify industrial action. There are two disagreeing parties in this negotiation, and it will take both parties to reach an agreement. This seems like the equivalent of saying, "stop arguing!" without actually trying to find agreement.
2. Union representation. The unions would like management to give them office space and access to internal systems. This seems like something that would be nice to have for the unions, and perhaps they could do many good things with such privileges, but to me it seems hardly something that can be demanded. I'm not sure how unions work in other places, but office space and access to internal systems doesn't seem like a right they can assert.
3. Managing change, redundancy, and review committees. The main thing being argued for here is the reintroduction of review committees, groups with equal representation from management and union that provide a check on the legitimacy of a redundancy when challenged. I think this is fair - there's always a tradeoff between caring well for employees and the ability to make hard decisions like making people redundant, and I think it may be justified to protect employees and make hard decisions harder. In practice I think this would mean that the university becomes more cautious in hiring staff (since it is harder to get rid of them), which I think is also generally a good thing.
4. General staff classifications. The issue here seems to be that some staff have either been asked to do work outside of their job descriptions, or have had additional responsibilities added to their job descriptions simply to save costs. On the one hand, most jobs have some expectation that employees will have to do certain things outside their "official" job description. On the other hand, no one wants to be piled up with more than they can actually handle. I think at the moment I lean slightly towards the manager's side on this, on the conditions that (i) no one is asked to do work they are unqualified for, and (ii) no one is forced to work more for no pay. This means that when extra things need to get done outside of the normal job description, employees should be expected to do less within their normal job description in order to fit in the extra things.
5. General staff access to career development. The unions would like a General Staff Development Fund included in the agreement. I think this would be very nice - setting aside money for staff development would ensure that staff development is a priority in the university. I think that this would be a wise investment in the long term, because it demonstrates care for employees and because it can increase the quality of work for the university.
6. Academic workload. Under the agreement proposed by management, the workload distribution between research, teaching, and administration would no longer be specified as 40/40/20. The concern is that removing this poses a threat to the amount of research that is done, especially as there is pressure to do more teaching. Now as I understand it, many academics basically just teach so that they get paid enough to do research, and research is what they really want to be doing as much as possible. On the other hand, teaching is what students pay for. I don't think I would particularly defend the 40/40/20 model, since I think there are many other creative solutions that might better allow the university to do good research and good teaching. As long as management demonstrates that they value research highly, I'm okay with them changing things up.
7. New permanent positions for long term casual and fixed term academics. From my limited experience, casual and fixed-term contracts seem to be very common amongst university staff, particularly support staff. This issue, however, is particularly aimed at supporting those teaching staff who are currently employed casually by allowing some to gain permanent positions. Management has proposed giving them fixed-term rather than permanent positions. I don't have enough information here to argue for one case or another, but I do feel that it makes sense for long term staff to be offered long term contracts.
8. Personal (sick) leave entitlements. In 2012, 55 staff took more than 50 days sick leave. While this doesn't necessarily mean that sick leave entitlements are open to abuse, they are pretty generous. I'd be more than happy to roll back some of the sick leave entitlements if it means that management can do other useful things in favour of the staff.
9. Superannuation. It seems one of the benefits often afforded by working in the university sector is a very high employer contribution to superannuation, as high as 17 percent compared to the minimum contribution of 9 percent. I'm not sure exactly has been proposed on either side, but it seems that management would like to allow staff to have the extra 8 percent in cash rather than have it in superannuation, whereas the unions are asking that anyone not currently being offered the 17 percent employer contribution should be offered it. I'm not particularly convinced that either proposal does much for staff, and would be happy to leave this one to management.
I think my take on the whole thing in the end is that I support some of the proposals put forward by management, and some of those put forward by the unions. I'm certainly not the best person to ask for advice or even information about this, and I'm sure my commentary above has said much more about me than it has about the facts of the situation. I know, however, that issues like these do have an impact on the students I work with, and therefore I want both myself and them to think well about the issues raised. So that's my little attempt!