Murdoch University enterprise agreement stand-off heads to Fair Work Commission

NTEU member Judith Lichtenzveig and her daughter attended the rally in support of Murdoch University staff.
NTEU member Judith Lichtenzveig and her daughter attended the rally in support of Murdoch University staff.

NATIONAL Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members and Murdoch University staff gathered on the steps of the Fair Work Commission this morning to protest against a bid by the university to tear up its existing enterprise agreement (EA), a move they believe could be a precursor to slashing wages by up to 39 per cent.

NTEU and Murdoch University have been locked in negotiations over a new EA since April 2016 but have so far failed to reach an agreement.

Murdoch University has applied to the Fair Work Commission to terminate the existing EA, which covers more than 3000 staff but has now expired.

If Murdoch University’s bid is successful it would allow management to reduce wages by 25 to 39 per cent, cut redundancy entitlements, remove academic workload regulation, eliminate employer provided paid parental leave and remove the current requirement to consult staff before implementing workplace changes.

It would also end a requirement for fixed-term contract workers to be made permanent if they can prove their work is ongoing.

Murdoch University has claimed it would make no changes to staff wages and other benefits for six months if the current EA is terminated but it is not legally bound by that declaration.

The case, which is set down for three weeks, began today when close to 100 people gathered outside the Fair Work Commission building to protest what NTEU general secretary Grahame McCulloch believes is a deliberate strategy by Murdoch University to weaken the bargaining position of its staff.

“I can’t say for legal reasons that Murdoch is not negotiating in good faith but if I do not look at it on a legal basis and instead talk about how any ordinary person would contemplate what serious negotiations mean, Murdoch University has negotiated with no serious intent,” Mr McCulloch said.

“In my view their objective all along has been to skirt the boundaries of the law with no intention whatsoever of making any realistic, reasonable, practical compromises with the union position.”

Mr McCulloch said of the 33 claims served on the union by Murdoch University, 12 had been agreed to with the NTEU indicating a willingness to negotiate on another 13.

Conversely, he said of the NTEU’s 17 claims Murdoch University had agreed to just one.

National Tertiary Education Union general secretary Grahame McCulloch and acting president of the Murdoch University branch of the NTEU Jo-Ann Whalley address a crowd on the footsteps of the Fair Work Commission.

“The purpose of Murdoch’s application to terminate the agreement is ultimately, in my view, to remove the union from the process of collective bargaining and ensure that all key employment conditions lie exclusively within management discretion in the future,” Mr McCulloch said.

Murdoch University director of people and culture Michelle Narustrang said the existing EA was unnecessarily large and complex.

“Terminating our existing agreement will reset the clock and allow both parties to negotiate from a more workable starting point,” she said.

“We need an agreement that reduces administrative burden and allows us to manage our business more effectively.”

Acting president of the Murdoch University branch of the NTEU Jo-Ann Whalley has spent the past year representing staff in negotiations and said the existing EA had received the backing of every single Murdoch worker.

“I don’t think it is the staff that are here today that have caused the so called financial crisis the university finds itself in,” Ms Whalley said.

“I’ll think you’ll find that it has been way too many years of leadership by what I like to call ambitions mediocrity.

“It’s the workers that have built this university and we are the ones that are going to take it back from these people.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a Murdoch University academic of more than two decades echoed Ms Whalley’s sentiment that university administration was out of touch with its staff.

“It’s all about management and their needs, and not about us as lecturers, professional staff, admin, researchers who really do drive the university,” he said.

“They may have encountered a poor financial year last year but it is not because of the staff at our level, it is certainly because of what happened in the previous administration.”

In June last year, the WA Corruption and Crime Commission handed down an opinion of serious misconduct against former Murdoch University vice chancellor Richard Higgott, who it found to have inappropriately schemed to appoint a friend to an important university post and accessed pornography from his university computer.

Professor Higgott resigned in October 2014.

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