The Vice Chancellor Wants To Be My Facebook Friend

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Across Australia, universities are poised to take industrial action over staff conditions, increased workloads and what they say is the ever-growing casualisation of the workforce. However, while union representatives and management argue over the new agreements, an interesting battle is being fought using various forms of old and new media.

Although they lack the flair and the charisma of some other technology-driven campaigns such as Barack Obama’s, university management teams are using emails, websites, videos and online push-polling in their attempt to weaken the industrial action being planned by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). The universities’ line is that it is they, rather than the union, that have their workers’ best interests at heart.

This is an argument that was a favourite within the Howard government. With WorkChoices, the Coalition tried to convince workers that what was best for them was not annoying regulations and collective agreements, but rather "choice" and the freedom to negotiate individual agreements.

Unions were sidelined as a special interest group and one that didn’t necessarily represent the workers, at the same time as they were blamed for increasing unemployment due to their influence in keeping wages high and constricting the free choice of the nation’s employees.

That logic didn’t sit well with the Australian public and Howard was given the boot. But now, on a smaller scale, the same arguments are being made by the managers of Australian universities.

The vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney and his management team present a particularly striking example of this Howardian dogma of "choice". The university’s argument has basically been that lower wages are better for staff, that the union is just one interest group among many, that bargaining should be carried out with the whole community and not just the union, that an enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) is too constrictive, that academics and general staff need the "flexibility" to negotiate any part of the EBA away and that workers need the "choice" to have fewer holidays.

The NTEU’s national campaign comes as most Australian universities negotiate new EBAs. While the agreements are separate for each uni, what happens at one university affects negotiations at the others. For example, at Sydney University, one of the vice-chancellor’s all-staff emails argues that the NTEU ought to end its opposition to a proposed clause because it has "already been accepted by the NTEU in enterprise agreements at Melbourne and ANU".

The first sign that the Howardian "choice" logic was guiding management’s arguments at Sydney University was in the second half of 2008, when they attempted to avoid bargaining with the NTEU, claiming that they wanted to consult with employees on an individual level. According to union official Michael Thomson at the Sydney University branch of the NTEU, management said that it "didn’t want to bargain with the union because management didn’t know what the issues were" and that they didn’t trust the union to enlighten them. The logic seems to be that unions are just one interest group among many and ought not be accepted as representing the employees’ interests. Professing suspicion of the NTEU’s motives, management said it wanted to deal with employees directly.

Awkwardly embracing web 2.0, Sydney’s vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, produced a web video (accessible to staff only) announcing a number of methods for consulting directly with employees. Online contact forms were created and the vice-chancellor met with a number of staff.

However, since the previous EBA had expired, the university could not avoid bargaining with the NTEU. As a part of the battle for the support of the staff, the vice-chancellor put out another web video about the university’s financial position in relation to the dreaded financial crisis. The VC advised staff to "tighten our belts", and in his email to all staff began using another piece of Howardian logic: what’s good for the employer is good for the employee, and that in the current climate significant wage increases were bad for everyone.

At that point the union responded to what it saw as stalling tactics by management in the negotiations. It produced its own youtube video urging members to vote for industrial action. The video wasn’t a PR masterpiece (and featured an uncomfortable-looking branch president reading to camera) but it seemed to do the job. Staff voted for strike action and within days management responded to the threat by signing a "Memorandum of Agreement" with the union.

Perhaps inevitably, this did not mean the end of the negotiations nor of the associated electronic media campaign. Management put the agreement in jeopardy by pushing two further issues — both of which involved more curious logic along with more propaganda aimed at winning the public battle.

The first extra issue regarded the "buying-out" of excess leave entitlements. The university management argued that people may wish to work more and have fewer holidays, so long as they are adequately compensated and that they should have this "option".

Subsequently, as part of management’s "direct staff consultation", they set up an online questionnaire, ostensibly to gauge staff attitudes to the issue. The VC announced the results in another all-staff email, reporting that "85 per cent of the 831 respondents have voted in favour" of the buying-out of the entitlements. But that result was challenged by the NTEU’s Michael Thomson who questioned the methodology of the poll and said that it "was illegitimate and designed to get a predetermined outcome".

Valid or not, it’s easy to see the message the university is trying to get across with this tactic: management is offering choice while the union is resisting.

According to the union and many members, the problem with this "option" is the pressure the university can put on members to take it up. Plus, according to the NTEU bargaining team, there are better ways to fix problems with the build-up of excess leave and have suggested some.

The second new issue was raised as part of the mandatory "flexible work practices clause". The clause is required under Commonwealth legislation but the content of the clause is open to negotiation. This clause is supposed to determine how the agreement may be modified under what are called "Individual Flexibility Arrangements". There is a default clause in the legislation but both management and the NTEU have suggested their own versions.

The NTEU claim that their clause attempts to add no extra flexibility than was already negotiated and agreed upon in the Memorandum of Agreement. But management’s clause allows for individual negotiation regarding the employee’s pay, hours and superannuation among other things. The acting vice-chancellor, Don Nutbeam, told all staff that this clause will allow "a staff member to work longer hours on some days in order to leave early on others to pick up children from school".

In the name of choice and flexibility, management wants employees to be in the position where they can negotiate almost any part of their contract away. Michael Thomson says that under the management’s proposed flexibility clause, workers will be worse off than they were under Howard’s AWAs. They will have to negotiate their "Individual Flexibility Arrangements" without the safeguards that were in place to protect workers signing onto AWAs. If Thomson is right, it would appear that in this case management have taken this notion of "choice" a step further than even John Howard did.

Management at the University of Sydney has taken the battle out of the meeting room and with their various forms of old and new media placed it in the public sphere. But Michael Thomson says that "their propaganda is disingenuous and doesn’t treat the workers with respect". Now the NTEU have hit back with a second youtube video, and there may be more on the way.

The result of all this is that for the union — not just at Sydney University but all over the country — these new techniques of persuasion are presenting new challenges in winning the PR war within the ranks of their own members. While normally they fight to win over students and the public, it is increasingly their own academic members who they must convince of the need for strike action in the face of a propaganda barrage from their employers.

As full-time academics and their (increasingly numerous) casual colleagues wait with bated breath for the next instalment on the university enterprise bargaining youtube channel, one has to feel that the Obama campaign has a lot to answer for. But while blogs, videos and online polls are all well and good for attracting the attention of your employees, when they are underlined by a lack of good faith bargaining they may well lead to some good ol’-fashioned industrial action.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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