The NTEU Strike

On May 9 the NTEU called a short strike as part of renegotiations on an enterprise bargaining agreement with the University of Melbourne. The union wants to ensure that everyone is covered by one agreement, that everyone receives the same rate of superannuation, and that academic freedom is part of the agreement. The first part is a lot more important than what might be obvious at first blush because nearly all labour markets are inherently anti-worker. Labour markets are like a reverse auction; where there are many people who want to buy something and there's one for sale, the price will go to the highest bidder. In a labour market, there is many sellers (of labour) and fewer buyers. It is for this reason that unions exist, to equalise the bargaining power between the buyer of labour and the seller of labour. The most equal relationship, and the one which has the most optimal economic outcomes in aggregate is a one-to-one relationship - it is also why union members earn higher wages.

The university would clearly prefer a situation where the single agreement could be broken up to two, then two into four, four into eight, and eventually where there are individual agreements and even worker competes against each other - and the lowest bidder wins. They would benefit enormously from this of course, even if it means lower wages and worse conditions for the workers directly affected and lower economic activity elsewhere - the latter point is poorly understood, so it bears repeating. The unearned economic rent of employer is gained at the expense of the workers and everyone else.

One other component of the union's proposed agreement is the re-inclusion of academic freedom. The University insists that academic freedom is part of their policy and as a result that this doesn't need to be in an agreement. This is obviously wrong on two grounds - firstly because policy can be changed by the employer, whereas an agreement is a contract between both parties. Secondly, in the case of University academic staff, academic freedom is a core part of their working conditions. It is perfectly understandable that it should be in a workplace agreement and it is incomprehensible that it should not be, unless it is the intention of the university to remove it from their policy in the future.

Reaching an impasse in negotiations, the NTEU sought protected industrial action through a ballot of its members and selected a company to conduct an electronic ballot to maximise response, through an entity that had been approved by the Fair Work Commission to run Protected Action Ballots on numerous prior occasions. The University sought a statutory declaration from TrueVote stating that it was a fit and proper person to conduct the ballot. However, once this was supplied, the University still insisted that its declaration was inadequate. Unsurprisingly, the company withdrew stating, quite accurately, that the University was negotiating in bad faith. The NTEU had to redo its Protected Action Ballot application, and in this case, the Fair Work Commission mad an order authorising the agency. Unsurprisingly, there was an overwhelming endorsement for industrial action.

The University of Melbourne strike action coincided with a wider stop-work action as part of the ACTUs #changetherules campaign, around the need to increase the minimum wage and reverse the cuts to the penalty rates, with an estimated 100,000 people in attendance - and to be sure this is just the start of it. People, ordinary people, are furious that almost 700 companies in Australia with incomes of $100 million are not paying any tax. They are frustrated by increases in the cost of living, and a paltry tax cut which coincides in a removal of a central plank of a progressive income tax regime - but it does give great benefit to the very wealthy.

It was the first time I've engaged in industrial action for roughly twenty years. Even as a consistent advocate for collective bargaining it is obviously not something that has been part of my employment environment, and nor is it something that is taken lightly. It requires particularly bad behaviour by an employer to result in such action. Even for one who has great pride and even love for their work, there are limits and they have been reached.

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