Staff at Melbourne’s Mowbray College will vote today on taking protective industrial action against the private school following disputes that include breach of contract, discrimination, underpayment and bullying. In what the Victorian Independent Education Union has described to Crikey as “highly unusual” circumstances three senior staff received notice while on leave and others have been made redundant or forced to resign while taking stress or sick leave.

Of the 200 staff members at Mowbray College, 22 are thought to have left or be about to leave the school this year, with a dozen Workcover cases in process and at least half a dozen staff taking independent legal action against the school.

VIEU deputy general secretary Loretta Cotter told Crikey that a change in principal five months ago prompted the board to begin directly running the school, with management issues ensuing.

In a letter to Mowbray staff dated May 20 2009 the VIEU said:

The involvement of Worksafe in investigating allegations of bullying and intimidation in respect to John Wallace, Chair Board, and David Kelly, Company Secretary, is urgently needed.

While the VIEU understands that there has been financial pressure on the college that does not give any employer the right to treat its staff with so little respect and regard for proper process. In particular, behaviour such as shouting at staff, irrational outbursts, attempts to access confidential staff files after hours indicate a management regime gone haywire.

Cotter told Crikey the VIEU became involved in negotiations on behalf of 180 staff in March, when commitments from the previous management regarding pay were ignored.

Negotiations have since fallen apart, Cotter told Crikey, and staff are presently following various avenues for redress including Worksafe, the Magistrates Court and the Industrial Relations Commission, with only one person offered the redundancy conditions covered by their enterprise bargaining agreement.

“There has been a lot of movement and a lot of uncertainty at the school,” Cotter told Crikey, “a number of people are not well because of the management environment.”

In a letter to several staff members dated March 27 2009, Mowbray Principal Peter Forbes requested further information in order to pursue issues staff had raised. He referred to a document tabled by staff that described circumstances of psychological harassment, intimidation, verbal abuse and humiliation.

I refer to our meeting on 25 March 2009, in which you made various allegations relating to workplace bullying and harassment by Mr. John Wallace which you indicated involved members of staff at Mowbray College.

You indicated in the meeting that you have obtained a number of ‘incident reports’ from College Staff which relate to workplace bullying and harassment, but you refused to provide these documents on the basis that the staff members who are referred to in the incident reports do not want to be identified.

The information that you tabled in the meeting does not set out sufficient information for me to investigate the allegations you have made.

When contacted by Crikey Forbes provided us with the following statement:

At this time it would be most productive for me to concentrate my comments and efforts on the big picture, which is finding a solution to the current staffing concerns so that Mowbray College can continue onwards and upwards.

In relation to your first question though concerning tomorrow’s vote, I would like to say that the school respects the union members’ right to vote. Indeed, I welcome the opportunity for them to table a formal list of genuine concerns that they can bring to me for discussion. I want to make it clear that the school is not spoiling for a fight, but looking for a solution.

The Employee Collective Agreement that was offered to staff on Tuesday was made in good faith. The 10% pay increase and increased paternity leave made for a strong and viable offer, particularly in the current economic climate. It was made with the intention of both rewarding our staff for their contributions thus far, and encouraging them to stay with us long into the future. If there are some who are unsatisfied, then we would all be best served by sitting down at the negotiating table and talking about what it would take to make this agreement workable for everyone.

There are, understandably, some concerns and issues I would like to raise with staff regarding the school’s current position prior to their vote — this is an important step towards them making an informed decision. In doing so I would like to think that, rather than going into tomorrow’s meeting with a view to choosing industrial action, it would be far more productive to pinpoint the problems and try to solve them together.

I would like to stress just how highly this college values its staff. It goes without saying that they hold the key to the school’s future. I want to see them not only stay but thrive and, in doing so, help create a legacy of Mowbray College being a great place to work and learn.

Crikey sought a response from John Wallace through Mowbray College, but he did not get back to us before deadline.