UTS Suspends Union Boss During Negotiations

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The University of Technology Sydney has suspended National Tertiary Education Union branch president Simon Wade from his job, claiming "serious misconduct". The move has provoked an angry response from the NTEU, who say Wade's suspension "comes after months of Simon being targeted in his workplace due to his involvement in enterprise bargaining on behalf of UTS staff".

Wade’s suspension comes at a charged moment in union-management relations, as a new enterprise agreement is currently being negotiated. Though Wade himself did not respond to an email requesting comment, the NTEU’s NSW division secretary Genevieve Kelly told NM that he had been heavily involved in negotiating the new agreement.

“I think it’s clear that he’s been target because he’s an active unionist: he’s tireless in defending staff conditions against the management's attempt to undermine the rights of procedures and processes,” she said.

The NTEU announced earlier this week that university management had suspended Wade from his position as a general staff member of the UTS audio-visual team. On Wednesday university spokesperson issued a statement confirming the suspension of an unnamed staff member and saying: “We can also confirm that that staff member happens to be the local President of the NTEU.”

UTS management have refused to give any hints about the nature of Wade’s “serious misconduct”, saying in a statement that "we can make no further comment about the details, nor pre-empt the outcome of the investigation".

The NTEU has characterised the accusations as “unsubstantiated and minor”. Kelly said “serious misconduct” suspensions were normally reserved for extreme cases of alleged wrongdoing, such as viewing child pornography on work computers, serious disruption to the work of other staff, and threatening behaviour. “Absolutely nothing like that has taken place. I can tell you that categorically,” she told NM.

If Kelly is right, management could have a difficult time convincing staff there is no connection between the disciplinary action and Wade’s work with the union.

Wade is entitled to be excused from his normal work duties for a certain amount of time each week to engage in enterprise agreement negotiations. The stakes of such negotiations are high, with the enterprise agreement responsible for setting out the working conditions, rights and pay of the university’s 3110 staff.

Negotiations have occurred on campuses around the country this year, resulting in industrial actions including the withholding of students' marks and large scale staff strikes.

Raising similar concerns to those expressed on other campuses, the UTS branch of the NTEU have accused management of failing to offer sufficient pay increases and attempting to alter the agreement in a way that would undermine job security.

When contacted to respond to the union’s claims, UTS manager of Media Communications Robert Button referred enquiries to the university’s earlier statement and would not add any further comments. The university also declined to answer NM's questions.

According to the NTEU, multiple charges against Wade are related to the amount of time he has given to the negotiating process. In one example, the university has accused him of misrepresenting the number of hours spent working compared to the number spent negotiating – Wade allegedly returned to work from negotiations at 2:30pm on one occasion but recorded the time as 2:00pm on his timesheet.

Union sources said another charge related to confusion about the AV department’s ticket system, whereby staff sign-in upon starting a job and sign-off at the time of its completion. In the earlier example, they said Wade was recorded on video by his manager.

“It’s an outrageous invasion of his privacy,” Kelly said, also denying the accuracy of the allegation and claiming Wade had simply returned to his workplace via a different route.

There is some evidence to suggest, however, that the union’s ardent defence of Wade has put some members of staff offside. When the UTS NTEU posted a petition calling for Wade’s immediate reappointment, comments left by anonymous sources attacked his work in the AV department. Kelly responded by juxtaposing the two comments with the petition’s 800 signatures, and accused those who left them of being from, or influenced by, management.

“Simon Wade has worked in [the AV department]for 16 years at the university. The complaints have only come now when he’s taken on an active role on behalf of his fellow workers at the university to negotiate their enterprise agreement,” Kelly said.

Aside from the substance of the allegations, the union is also protesting the mechanisms used to bring them to Wade’s attention, objecting that he has not been given due process under the terms of the current enterprise agreement.

President of the UTS Students’ Association, Andy Zephyr, said he was concerned by the manner in which this process had taken place.

"It worries me that this behaviour from the university could become a trend. If the university management feel they can suspend employees with no more than a letter and two hours notice, the fear of the potential attitudes towards students and the security of our education increases exponentially,” Zephyr noted in a statement to NM.

Wade’s fate, and his place at the enterprise bargaining table, may be decided today, with the NTEU set to meet with management figures in what promises to be a fiery encounter. If this dispute meeting does not bring them a satisfactory resolution, the NTEU has vowed to pursue all legal options.

UPDATE: After today’s meeting the NTEU said it had given management time to respond in full to its challenge to Wade’s suspension. It said if this response was not satisfactory, the next move would be a complaint to Fair Work Australia.

Max Chalmers

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.

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