How rivalry between staff unions may or may not affect your life

In August, The Australian newspaper reported the National Tertiary Education Union’s unsuccessful appeal to Fair Work Australia against an enterprise agreement reached at the end of last year.

The NTEU, the article read, was in part unhappy with the University’s unlimited fixed-term contract conditions for general staff, and felt that the other union, the Community and Public Sector Union, had accepted too little too soon.

The outcome of enterprise bargaining may directly or indirectly affect student life and the quality of services in as far as we are part of a larger system. Or, at least, it is the endeavour of this particular writer, yours truly, to find out whether this holds true.

The issue is this: until ten or so years ago, the CPSU was the only union representing professional staff, while the NTEU represented academics.

Once the NTEU began to represent both general and academic staff, whether or not the two unions were in divergence, the enterprise agreement applied to all.

Before I have decided that this article is not to be about rivalry, CPSU delegates Alister Wareing and Adrianne Harris wait for me, on a sunny afternoon, at the Blue Stone Café to discuss rivalry with the NTEU.

The first thing I want to know is whether there were angry letters. “That must be at a higher level”, Alister Wareign says. “We want to work together, not against each other,” Adrianne Harris adds.

But working with the NTEU in the next round –in 2013— they say, will not be an easy task, though they worked well before the last campaign.

Why wasn’t a pact between the unions reached then? The 2010 agreement that the NTEU disapproved of, they tell me, had achieved what was included by members and non-members in the CPSU log of claims, so as far as they were concerned, there was no reason not to shake hands with management.

The highlights of the agreement, they say, are to do with leave options, which include two weeks grandparent leave, non-obligatory leave during the Christmas break, and domestic abuse leave.

That the NTEU were unhappy with the conditions agreed on was, so to speak, not of their concern, because what they wanted, they got.

“There needs to be more mutual respect between staff groups to acknowledge that we work under different conditions and that we have very different approaches to our unions,” says Adrianne Harris.

The CPSU, I gather from our conversation over coffee, which they pay for, are a rather cheerful union. But that’s beside the point.

Or perhaps that is the point: according to the NTEU, they don’t put up enough of a fight against management.

“The thing is, they want us to say that the politics [between academic and general staff] are different and that we have no common interests,” said NTEU President at UNSW, Dr Sarah Gregson.

“We think we’re better off together. The situation now just allows bosses to play two groups against each other and in the end general staff are the losers. If that were the case, we’d have no general staff members. But a lot of our members see the importance of having both. ”

The NTEU, Dr Gregson later told me, sees the issue of job security as the primary problem with the agreement. In the next bargaining round, she says, the NTEU want a limit the amount of general staff that is hired on a fixed-term contract, like it is for academics.

The CPSU view this issue as intrinsic to academic staff. “We operate differently in the way that we achieve job security,” said Alister Wareing.

And here’s where the issue, arguably, converges with student interests. To what extent does staff casualization affect student life and the quality of services (including teaching)?

According to a 2011 Australian Council of Trade Unions Survey which 41,000 workers’ partook, “an early analysis of 1000 responses found the majority of Australians want greater job security and are struggling to cope with the rising cost of living, while improvements to technology have resulted in them performing more unpaid work outside of hours.”

Dr Gregson says this means that students often can’t get in touch with their tutors because they are not at university as many hours as permanent staff.

“Casuals do an amazing job with few resources and little support, but their time is limited towards students.”

A tutor in the School of Arts and Social Sciences who wished to remain anonymous –let’s call her Joan Smith—said casualization allows other professionals with valid experience to teach at university, and whether or not students have access to tutors depends on personal values, not on their contract.

“In the education system, there’s no timer on the hours you spend helping students or reading mails. You do it because you want to,” said Ms Smith, who thinks that entering into a casual contract entitles a set of conditions, and that’s something you work with.

“It would be more useful to ask for a better salary for casuals, or to include pensions, but as a casual worker, I know that there are no long-term expectations –it’s part of the deal.”

Hiring casual staff as tutors, she says, allows other professionals who can bring useful experience to students a chance to work at a university where, in other parts of the world, this is reserved to academics only.

“If they hire people on the basis that a long-term contract will be negotiated after a specific period of time, that will only encourage management to hire and dismiss casuals for that time difference, so that they never have to put anybody on a permanent contract.”

To conclude, whether or not short-term contracts affect students (and more importantly, the quality of teaching) is far less relevant in this particular dispute than whether life for staff is made easier, and will for all practical purposes and so long as there are no more strikes not affect your life. So perhaps this article was about rivalry, after all.

Henar Perales