'A cave in': NTEU hasn't done enough to protect members amid COVID-19

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Many if not most NTEU members are displeased with the Union's action during the COVID-19 pandemic (image by John Englart via Flickr).

As university staff emerge from the COVID-19 lockdown, many are perplexed at the perverse behaviour of its union, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).

The Union’s leadership has offered university managements a "National Jobs Protection Framework" that diminishes hard-won conditions and salaries. For rank-and-file NTEU members, the preceding secret negotiations between NTEU leaders and employer representatives added industrial and political isolation to the physical isolation of the lockdown. Many are asking: "what on earth is the union doing"?

Why has the NTEU leadership engaged in a COVID-19 cave-in?

As long-standing local office-bearers of the NTEU and two among many observers of its unfortunate turn of direction in recent years, we can offer something of insiders’ informed speculation about the reason for the unprecedented cave-in, following the sector’s loss of international student income.

First, we can take with a grain of salt most of the NTEU leadership’s stated reasons for caving in. On 25 April, the National President, Alison Barnes, sent a "softening-up" email to all members preparing them for the "National Jobs Protection Framework". To scare the horses, eight claims were made about what damaging industrial relations measures managements could implement under current legislation and enterprise agreements.

Actually, the first three are limited by strict accompanying conditions, but these were not stated:

  • Standing down of staff members without pay who have insufficient work;
  • Coercive leave under the threat of stand down or redundancy; and,
  • Coercive cuts in fraction under threat of stand down or redundancy.

The crucial qualification missing in the email was that university managements would have to demonstrate, case by case, insufficient work and that the insufficient work was the result of the pandemic.

This is no easy task in a sector that is – according to the NTEU’s own statements for more than two decades – burdened with massive quantities of mostly unpaid overtime and excessive hours of work. And with some Vice-Chancellors boasting of sacking loads of casuals to deal with the crisis, then for almost all staff stand-downs are the least of their concerns.

Redundancies are another threat eagerly noted in the email, to be discussed below. 

Second are the fourth, fifth, and sixth stated reasons:

  • Not renewing fixed-term contract jobs and transfer duties to permanent employees;
  • Terminating the employment of casuals and in many cases transfer their work to permanent employees; and,
  • Increasing class sizes and teaching loads.

In many current enterprise agreements (signed off by the NTEU National Executive, of course), not renewing fixed-term contracts is regarded as management’s prerogative and has little or nothing to do, as such, with employers’ response to the pandemic.

On the other hand, the Barnes email pictures work being transferred from (previously employed) fixed-term contract and casual employees to permanent staff. So, the email’s scare story provides an implausible scenario of the COVID-19 response causing both too much work and not enough.

The fact is, as in non-COVID-19 times, work performed by sacked contract and casual staff is shifted either to others with insufficient work or foisted onto those already carrying a full workload. If it is done by those with insufficient work, then that solves the problem of stand-downs arising from insufficient work.

If it is imposed on those with sufficient work, then in better times those staff had a way to demonstrate their over-burden. But in recent years, that’s become harder. We’ll turn to the reason for that in a moment.

Third are what we can speculate are the tangentially expressed, but real reasons, for the NTEU’s COVID-19 cave-in:

  • The Closing of programs and campuses; and,
  • The implementation of compulsory redundancies on a wide scale.

While the closure of campuses and programs needs no pandemic, nevertheless, the implementation of redundancies and retrenchments on any scale will be blamed conveniently by managements on the pandemic.

Some retrenchments – in those universities with a high reliance on international student income – will be partly the result of a loss of income and partly attributable to poor decisions about expenditure and income-generating priorities. However, in those universities with little reliance on international student income, there won’t be retrenchments as a result of the travel ban and where they do occur, they were going to happen anyway.

In other words, university managements both before and after COVID-19 have a virtually free hand in sacking staff and the fact that the NTEU’s "National Jobs Protection Framework" asks for some meagre moderations to mass sackings and damaging restructurings is why some, perhaps many, university managements will not be signing up to the Framework.

To return to the question of redundancies and retrenchments: no small part of the reason retrenchments can happen so easily in the higher education sector, at least in terms of academic staff, is found in the vagueness of almost all academic workload models in current enterprise agreements.

Over the years, the Union’s National Executive has signed off on vague, poorly quantified and often unenforceable workload models. Retrenchments can be thwarted if, for example, maximum teaching quantums exist and limit the over-burdening of those already working at the maximum.

So, to conclude by speculating from the position of informed insiders, it appears the real reason the NTEU leadership is abrogating its responsibility to uphold the two bedrocks of trade unionism – to improve or at least defend pay and conditions, and to operate more democratically and transparently than employers – is that the senior officers are petrified of losing dues-paying full-time members through mass sackings.

Yet this has meant capitulating to, in fact tacitly endorsing, neoliberal governments’ long-standing imposition on the sector of artificial austerity.

It means a Framework that really does very little to prevent redundancies/retrenchments if universities continue to cry poor. It’s a secretly negotiated agreement that provides no more hope than presently to casual and contract staff of gaining tenure or increased job security. It is a corporate-union business model hooked on the revenue that comes from permanently employed senior staff who, most likely, will be the ones first targeted for retrenchment.

Crises like the one we are witnessing often expose the shortcomings of society and in places where one may not have thought to look before.  

Tim Battin has been a leading elected officer of the University of New England (UNE) Branch of the NTEU for a combined period of 11 years, a national councillor for 10 years, and five times a representative of the NTEU-UNE enterprise bargaining team between 1999 and 2019.

Kelvin McQueen has been an NTEU member since 1995 and member of local branch committees for 20 years. For four rounds of enterprise bargaining, he has been a member of NTEU negotiating teams.

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