(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In early April, with the pandemic raging, Australia’s universities desperately needed a lifeline. International students had stopped coming, wiping away billions in revenue. Up to 30,000 jobs were set to go. And while the sector had been hit by the pandemic earlier and with greater ferocity than any other, the federal government continued to leave universities out in the cold.

So, against a backdrop of existential crisis, the National Tertiary Education Union’s (NTEU) leaders sat down with vice-chancellors representing the Australian Higher Education Industry Association (AHEIA) and came up with a plan.

Under the National Job Protection Framework, enterprise agreements would be temporarily varied. Wage cuts of up to 15% were on the cards. In return, the union hoped to save 12,000 jobs.

It was either a necessary, pragmatic plan to keep people employed, or a stunning betrayal of the union’s membership. Either way, within weeks, the framework was dead, as vice-chancellors walked away and members turned on it.

A rank and file revolt

Union members first became aware that the executive were making concessions in mid-April. The executive said it did this out of necessity — facing what President Alison Barnes calls a “jobs apocalypse” and with no help from Canberra, they felt the negotiations were crucial.

But discontent was already brewing among sections of the union membership, angry that the national executive had been negotiating concessions without first seeking approval from the rank and file.

Groups like NTEU Fightback managed to quickly galvanise that discontent into a campaign against the framework, which went live on May 12.

“The union should actually be fighting to defend members’ pay, conditions and jobs,” NTEU Fightback media coordinator Alexis Vassiley told Crikey.

“Instead what we saw was union officials collaborating with management in order to cut those wages.”

Members like Vassiley said the executive never communicated clearly about negotiations and proposed wage cuts, and claimed leadership tried to stifle opposition to the framework.

In an email seen by Crikey, NTEU General Secretary Matthew McGowan told members that branch resources could not be used to circulate material opposing the framework.

Barnes notes communication issues, but says that the pandemic made it harder to be clear with members. As meetings suddenly migrated online, a lot of the union’s traditional influencing tactics became obsolete.

There was also a feeling among casual staff — who make up a majority of the sector, but who have been historically under-represented in the union — that they were being sold short.

The framework sought to protect them by mandating that where a casual had a reasonable expectation of performing work, the institution had to continue employing them. It also tried to ban external appointments to protect existing casuals. But opponents said that the framework would still allow casual works to be given to fixed-term workers.

“There was universal condemnation from casuals … we feel like the union had thrown us under the bus,” sessional lecturer and Monash Casuals Network convener Michael Lazarus said.

By May, opposition to the framework had spread across the membership. Branches at the University of Sydney, University of Melbourne and RMIT passed motions opposing it.

But there were also rumblings that the whole divide was a factional skirmish, led by the Socialist Alternative. Opponents of the framework dismissed this as “red-baiting” — while Socialist Alternative were represented in the leadership of Fightback, plenty of opponents weren’t factionally aligned.

Who killed the deal?

Opponents of the framework said they were part of the biggest successful union revolt Australia had seen for decades. But Barnes downplays the extent of the opposition, and is adamant that had the framework gone to a vote as planned, it would have gotten up.

“You’ve got to remember that yes there’s vocal opposition, but we have 30,000 members, and a lot of those members are not as vocal but still supported it,” Barnes said.

Opponents of the framework also conceded that it probably would have won the vote. The union’s national council, made up of 107 rank and file representatives from across the country, overwhelmingly supported it.

Barnes lays the blame for the framework’s demise squarely at the foot of vice-chancellors. The framework seemed to sit in the unloved middle ground — too many wage concessions for the union’s left flank, not enough cuts for some vice-chancellors. UNSW’s Ian Jacobs and Deakin’s Iain Martin, both said the framework constrained their ability to make decisions (read: cut more staff). Deakin has since shed 400 jobs.

Barnes says vice-chancellors balked after reading the fine print and realising the framework opened up their finances to unwanted scrutiny.

“They didn’t want to open their books so they had to demonstrate that they had reduced things like executive wages, that they had proved all these reductions in their expenditure before cutting jobs.”

But division within the union also played a part. The University of Sydney cited opposition from their NTEU branch as motivating their decision to opt out. Stuart Andrews, chair of the AHEIA, said vice-chancellors were concerned that opposition among the union meant the framework wouldn’t win a ballot.

Vice-chancellors fell like nine pins, and by May 26, the day members were meant to vote, 17 had pulled out. The framework was dead.

What happens now

The framework’s demise won’t stem the carnage in the higher education sector. Three universities — La Trobe, Monash, and the University of Western Australia, whose VCs originally sat down with the NTEU, are putting versions of the framework to a vote.

Meanwhile, hundreds of jobs are about to go — at Deakin and Central Queensland University and the University of Wollongong. Whole campuses could close. La Trobe is in a parlous financial state.

In the next 18 months, enterprise agreements are up for negotiation at most universities. Opponents of the framework worry the union hurt its bargaining position by showing vice-chancellors their hand.

“If you were negotiating to buy a used car, you wouldn’t tell them the highest price you’re willing to go to straight away,” Vassiley said.

Barnes, meanwhile, is calling for unity, and hopes anger among members can be redirected at vice-chancellors.

“We really need to stand together as members to protect job security in what is going to be an enormously difficult context,” Barnes told Crikey.

Even if opponents of the framework were just a small and vocal minority, the last month has created a very public schism in the NTEU, at a time it least needs it.