Although the corporate media has not covered it, choosing instead to focus on the university’s fund-raising efforts, the academic and professional staff at the University of Auckland held a one hour strike last week to protest the lack of progress on negotiations for a fair living wage for all staff, especially for those at the lower end of the wage scale. Among other union proposals was the payment of a flat $2.500 increase to everyone covered by the collective contract in lieu of a cost of living increment. In conjunction with a rise in the minimum wage for lower-salaried workers, this would have the greatest positive effect on those struggling to keep afloat in the Auckland market.
University management refuses to negotiate until the budget is decided next month or in November. This runs contrary to traditional practice where pay for academic and professional staff is negotiated prior to the budget being fixed. It follows on more than a decade of erosion of collective benefits for university personnel and the slow but seemingly inexorable weakening of the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) as a bargaining agent at the University of Auckland.
The one hour lunchtime strike was well attended, although not massive in size. Shortly after 12:45 the director of Human Resources, a despicable cur if there ever was one, sent out a group email to TEU members advising them that their pay would be docked for the one hour they were on strike. He went on to request confirmation from the recipient that s/he was indeed on strike so that their pay could be deducted.
There followed a blizzard of emails in response. I am on the TEU mailing list so I got to read them all. Other than one person, all were critical of the university’s approach to employment relations. What stood out were the dozens of stories about countless overtime hours worked with no pay (the academic standard contract is for 37.5 hours per week), the abysmal lack of morale and trust in management amongst staff, and the psychological, emotional and physical toll the stress of working at the UA was taking on its staff. The stories were sad and many gut-wrenching.
These stories came from professors, lecturers, IT specialists, counsellors, librarians, tutors, administrative support staff–you name it, they had something to say. Some people asked how the deduction would work since they were not on an hourly wage. Others pointed out that they were on Â leave but would gladly see their pay deducted in solidarity with those who attended the strike. Â Many pointed out that they were at their offices during lunch hour working out of loyalty to students and colleagues but would gladly have their pay docked in solidarity with the strikers. Some suggested that the deducted pay should go to charity, at least until it was pointed out to them that the university is a registered Â charity and the “donations” could well go into the VC’s pocket or as bonuses to his management team members (the VC is the highest paid public servant in NZ and the senior management team all make in excess of NZ$150K/year).
What became clear from the responses is that behind the facade of the University of Auckland being a “world class” university there is a deeply dishonest and unethical management that is seeking to destroy the TEU Auckland branch and thereby further subjugate its staff to its academic Taylorist precepts. I have written about this before, so no need here to reiterate what it entails. The bottom line is that the University is being hollowed out at its core, in a workplace where academics and academic support staff are reduced to time card punching and asking permission to use the loo while the ranks of middle and upper management bean counters proliferate like rats.
I have been critical of the TEU in the past for valuing wage increases over workplace control (including in the classroom, where there is increasing interference by middle level managers with no teaching experience). I always through that it was a bad idea to trade off regular wage increases for workplace control, which extends to promotion and research leave policy. But what is done is done and now the university management is in the final stages of its assault on the union.
The time to make a stand is now. Having read the emailed responses I decided to write a letter of support to the Auckland TEU and its members. This is what I wrote:
As a former TEU member and academic staff member at the University of Auckland, I want to add my support to your efforts to restore the university to its former position as a fair and equitable workplace. Unfortunately, having dealt with Mr. Phipps as well as other management lackeys at close range, I believe that yours will be an uphill battle. Their objective is to break the union so that with a few exceptions you will eventually be subject to precarious individual, often part time contracts and thereby will be more easily exploited. The trend is already apparent and the situation is worse for junior staff and those not considered to be “stars.” Given the tight academic labour market and the already low union density amongst professional and academic staff (particularly the latter), it will be difficult to individually resist this project if the TEU is further undermined as a collective bargaining agent.
Mr. McCutcheon was a successful union-buster in his life before being appointed VC. Nothing in his tenure at UA suggests that he has moderated his views on the utility of collective agents, and the tone of Mr. Phipps’s suspension notice is a reflection of that. It should not be forgotten that this management team at UA is not known for its honesty or fairness when it comes to employment relations. “Good faith” is not part of their vocabulary. Many of you will know of the efforts by the SMT to offer financial incentives to senior academics to either quit or not join the union. You will have seen the replacement of departing permanent full time staff with part time hires. Given that there are academics who support or go along with the VC’s approach for self-serving reasons, the struggle to return civility and fairness to employment relations at the UA will be a tough one.
I would not be surprised if the many tales of unpaid hours owed to staff outlined in the barrage of email replies to Mr. Phipps’s suspension notice will be seen by the VC and his minions as a sign that their Taylorist approach to academia is working just fine. They need to be disabused of that notion.
The key to defeating the academic Taylorists is to assiduously defend and increase union membership and to strictly and unwaveringly adhere to any calls for direct action such as labour service withdrawals (be it strikes, slow downs or work-to-rule). The call for a living wage and fair pay for professional (non-academic) staff is a step in the right direction. However, much ground has already been lost in terms of workplace control, academic freedom, promotion and leave, so the time to regain some measure of balance in the employment relationship is rapidly disappearing. The nature and timing of the direct actions to be taken henceforth in defence of the union and its members will be decisive, and must receive unanimous support..
You should not expect favourable media treatment. Today’s editorial in the Herald about the University’s fundraising is indicative of the pro-management bias of the for-profit news outlets. A concerted PR campaign will be required to counter-balance the view, propagated by the SMT, that all is well at the university and that if anything, academics have things easy when compared to other wage earners.The public needs to hear the stories told in your emails to Mr. Phipps.
There comes a time when people can be pushed only so far. Perhaps that time has come for the TEU Auckland branch and its members. Although I no longer belong to the academic community, I understand your struggle and deeply empathise with it. I wish you the best of luck and success in staving off the managerial offensive.
I can only hope that if the union does make a stand, that it not be its final one.