The Fair Work Commission has found for Murdoch U in its major dispute with the NTEU
what happened: Murdoch U has won its case for cancelling its now expired, but still applied enterprise agreement. Fair Work Commissioner Willams found for the university yesterday in a judgement which gives Murdoch what it wants – the ability to negotiate a new enterprise agreement outside the context of what university management considers the unsustainably generous terms of the old one.
and why: As Provost Andrew Taggart puts it; “we need to find new ways of running our university so that it is viable in the long term, whilst maintaining academic excellence and delivering quality teaching.”
Commissioner Williams agreed, “it is entirely appropriate that a university in a poor financial situation look into all aspects of its business for improvement. There is no reason why the employment arrangements, particularly when these were negotiated some years ago, should not now be reviewed as part of striving for improvement. Importantly for this application Murdoch’s argument is about the future and is that the clauses it impugns in the agreement will hinder or obstruct it making the changes it needs in order to improve its financial situation,” he said in his decision, released yesterday.
According to the commissioner, between 2013 and last year staff costs increased by 10 per cent, five times the rate of growth in student fees.
how it happened: This is a major defeat for the National Tertiary Education Union, which argued overturning the old agreement at Murdoch could lead to a reduction in wages and conditions and encourage other universities to follow. However Commissioner Williams decided that ending the old agreement would allow both parties to focus on finding terms for a new one
“The context for the negotiations to date has been that the provisions of the expired agreement remain in operation unless both parties agree to changes. This is important in this instance because the specific changes Murdoch is bargaining to achieve is to remove or redraft numerous clauses in the agreement it views as problematic. If bargaining does not result in an agreement the problematic clauses continue to apply unchanged into the future, indefinitely. In this situation the current context for negotiations has not been neutral, it has favoured the NTEU where they do not agree to change these clauses.”
“It is entirely appropriate that a university in a poor financial situation look into all aspects of its business for improvement. There is no reason why the employment arrangements, particularly when these were negotiated some years ago, should not now be reviewed as part of striving for improvement,” the commissioner added.
what it means: Few, if any, other universities will follow Murdoch – winning a judgement by convincing the FWC that your institution has the financial staggers is desperate stuff. But, and it is a but of Himalayan heights, this decision is a blow to the NTEU’s preferred instruments of industrial authority – the presence of immensely complex terms and conditions in university agreements that union officers use to protect members and search for precedents for better wages and conditions.
In contrast, while they are not given to display at the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, they may indulge in a quiet smile this morning. This decision gives AHEIA something it has long wanted –an acknowledgement that complex industrial agreements can harm productivity in universities
what’s next: Nothing until the National Tertiary Education Union’s leadership decides its best chance to have the judgement reversed.
According to industrial relations consultant Andrew Dempster; “for universities that are in a strong financial position, the decision is likely to be of limited value given Murdoch’s financial circumstances were a key factor in the decision. For universities that are struggling financially and unable to secure concessions through normal bargaining processes, the decision opens-up options.
“The decision will also play into the wider political discussion of whether it is reasonable for employers to seek termination of expired agreements, with the ALP indicating that it intends to wind back termination as a legal option for employers if elected.
On Monday Murdoch U management said it was keen to get on with enterprise bargaining, the parties not having met for months. The union now seems to have little choice but to talk.
reaction: The National Tertiary Education Union was quick to issue a statement yesterday but left union state secretary Gabe Gooding to do the talking. “The way in which this agreement has been terminated is another example that our laws are badly broken and must change to ensure the just treatment of workers. … Murdoch employees must be distressed and wondering today why their management could not also settle a deal without seeking to terminate their collective agreement” she said.
Murdoch Vice Chancellor Eeva Leinonen said the FWC decision would “greatly assist the parties to negotiate from a more workable starting point.” She also reaffirmed Murdoch’s promise to maintain pay and conditions under the now cancelled agreement for six months from September 26, “allowing sufficient time to reach an agreement. Not only does the NTEU not have much choice to talk, it does not have a great deal of time.
Unless of course it appeals and wins.