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RMIT staff recall open day boycott following threats from management

NTEU RMIT Strike

NTEU RMIT Branch protest at the Melbourne based university in 2021. Photo: Facebook.

By CHRISTINE LAI

Staff at RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) have withdrawn from plans to boycott open days at the University, located in Melbourne. This comes after management threatened legal action in response to staff’s refusal to work unpaid hours for 11 days in August, as well as rejecting their bid to pursue industrial action to negotiate for a new workplace agreement.

RMIT Vice-Chancellor Alec Cameron called on staff to volunteer their time on July 11 at upcoming open days at the Bundoora campus on August 7, and City and Brunswick campuses on August 14.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) passed a motion advising members not to engage in unpaid labour for 11 days in August, in response to RMIT’s refusal to enter a new enterprise bargaining agreement until 2023, despite the previous EBA expiring over a year ago. Some of the proposed out-of-hours work bans included the open days in August.

NTEU’s RMIT branch delegate and branch committee member Liam Ward condemned the threat by management, stating that the refusal to open negotiation for a new enterprise bargaining agreement had been a failed attempt to stifle workers.

Ward stated that the response to RMIT staff’s refusal to undertake unpaid work through an “extreme legal threat” of fines and banning workers from taking industrial action was an indictment of management’s role at the university.

He described the scale of the University’s threat as “significant and disproportionate to what we were doing”  and a “massive overreaction”.

RMIT Campus

RMIT Melbourne City Campus. Photo: RMIT University.

Ward said that if the Vice Chancellor had provided staff with a date for commencing negotiations, instead of intimidating staff with the threat of a Fair Work proceeding for taking “unprotected industrial action”, this would have satiated workers’ concerns amidst the bargaining turmoil.

Ward asserted that the improvements RMIT staff were calling for would not be won without industrial action. He explained that management’s threat to  “potentially ban us from taking any industrial action at all if or when bargaining finally does commence” forced NTEU members to make a “judgment call” and abandon the planned boycotts.

“If we’re going to win serious improvements to academic workloads and job security, we need to be able to go on strike because senior management will not give us these things, so we had to make a judgment call and we need the right to strike because we’re going to do it,” Ward said.

Union rep calls previous EBA “archaic”

The previous EBA was struck in 2018, prior to COVID-19, and before remote working, online teaching, thousands of staffing job cuts were made across the sectors and inflation hit record levels.

Ward stated that RMIT staff were “desperate for a new agreement”, and criticised the old EBA, describing it as an “old, archaic document that bears no resemblance to the way that people at RMIT are now working and are in serious need of a new agreement.”

He added that there were significant improvements that the union wanted to make in workload, job security, career paths for casuals and fixed term staff.

General representative in the RMIT student union council Ella Marchionda condemned university management for refusing to open the negotiating period, and “stalling staff” during the cost-of-living crisis where workers are currently facing lower wages with “skyrocketing inflation”.

“Wages are not going up in line with CPI (consumer price index) increases and staff deserve wage increases above inflation,” Marchionda said.

Student Union stands in solidarity with staff

Last week the RMIT student union council passed a motion in solidarity with staff.

Marchionda stated that management invoking the Fair Work Act was “shocking” considering the ‘industrial action’ was “just workers refusing to work for free.”

She added that staff were already “stretched” when it came to the current workload and recalled conversations with past tutors at RMIT who said that they were unable to “answer emails out-of-hours because they’re not paid to do that” or mark essays and provide feedback in time.

Another NTEU member, who asked to remain unnamed, asserted that the Vice Chancellor’s decision “unleashed the most repressive tools available to him as an employer under this country’s stringent anti-strike, anti-union laws by threatening the union with hundreds of thousand-dollar fines.”

The consolidated net operating profit for RMIT University in 2021 left a surplus of $117.1 million. Last year thousands of both current and former employees at RMIT won back-pay to the amount of $10 million for wage theft claims dating as far back as 2014.

The NTEU member said that the back-pay offered by RMIT as a settlement was management admitting that they were guilty and that the sector at RMIT was built in “exploitation and stolen wages that applies to casuals and full-time staff.”

“Stolen labour and the expectation that people will just work for free is the baseline of uni management. They build their employment models on that. It’s unsustainable for workers and an indictment on uni management and federal and state governments who have encouraged this.”

Industrial action has been rife in universities across Australia, with Western Sydney University voting to take further strike action and staff at University of Sydney currently discussing a date for the next strike in the coming semester.

Sydney University Strike

NTEU organised strike for staff rights at University of Sydney in May. Photo: Facebook

Ward hopes that RMIT staff will seize this moment of “white-hot anger” towards RMIT senior management and turn that into “organisational strength and confidence.”

“The victory for casual backpay at RMIT was the fruit of serious organising on the ground by campaign committee led by tireless NTEU activists and fighting for a new EBA will require the same,” he said.

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