The intergenerational fight against the Employer
It is often difficult to conceptualise, but behind the hundred-year-old façade of the clocktower, a near-constant struggle rages between the various factions that represent staff interests and the ominously titled: Employer. Spoken of only in hushed whispers by some, and yelled from the curb of Princes St by others, the Employer seems a nebulous and omnipresent being, and perhaps for UoA, that is a more convenient image. A force so amorphous and overwhelming that no individual may stand against it. And yet the employer has a name, a face, a title: Vice Chancellor, Dawn Freshwater.
Identified by the Tertiary Education Union’s UoA organiser as public enemy number one, some concessions have to be given. Freshwater took over in March 2020, in the midst of one of the most convoluted education climates of the last century: lockdown, and also following decades of lowered government assistance in education to the point that about 60% of UoA’s operation is now privately funded. This is not even to mention the surplus that Universities are all but obliged to maintain by law. And thus, as the University seeks to expand, as Freshwater continues projects started in the Te Rautaki Tūāpapa plan, conceived before her time, money is often tighter than it seems. But the unions ask: why should they lose out first?
Speaking to Nicole Wallace, UoA organiser for the TEU, Craccum asked what was happening. The truth , Wallace reports, is that it is not really about the money, it is about “clawbacks” of staff benefits. Attempts to move them out of collective agreements, where they are legally protected, and into the University’s policy where they can be changed on a whim. In the end, of course, there is a lack of funding behind all of this.
In the long, long term, the University will not take these provisions out of current staff agreements, only for new ones. This tactic, Wallace explains, is common for union-busting, it seeks to allow current staff to lose little while accepting this decrease on behalf of future generations of academics. And the TEU wants the student body to know that this next set of lecturers and support staff is for whom they fight. Today’s lecturers could accept the deal, keep their benefits, possibly negotiate a higher-pay deal on accepting the clawbacks, and be quite content. But they refuse. Not only for the next generation here, but across the country, as many other institutions look to UoA as an example, once clawbacks start it is only a matter of time before they make their way across Aotearoa.
The benefits that are most in the spotlight are retirement leave and long service leave. Particularly important for low-paid staff, and only important at the end of a working life, retirement leave is a sum payment based on how many years you have been employed, long service leave is much the same. These are not legally mandated provisions, but they have been a part of the University for decades. They provide support for those no longer able to work, common among the more aged members of the University’s payroll. The Employer claims that this is outdated, but thanks to a convenient Cabinet fact sheet from November last year, we can report an overwhelming 92% of public service agreements have long service leave.
It would be remiss, of course, to not briefly cover the pay scheme itself. Which is framed as very complicated, and according to Wallace, this is in order to make it easier for the University to push through certain parts: namely paid performance schemes and lowered real (adjusted for inflation) pays. In the current proposal, academic staff are either agreeing to a real pay cut of at least 2.5% year on year or even more. Other staff, including security and grounds people are agreeing to a system in which they have to meet arbitrary measures in order to be paid certain amounts. According to some members already on the scheme, decision-making is very unclear, this lack of transparency makes it easier for discrimination and abuse to occur, and it is viewed as simply unfair.
Allegedly—and know that this is a legally sensitive area that Wallace would not comment on, the University has been employing new and varied techniques to stamp down on the movement. Isolation of staff members has become more common, and according to an unnamed source, members of management, and deans of various faculties, have become more disciplined and harsh when it comes to their responses. There is no substantial evidence as of yet of any preferential treatment (though if anyone wishes to drop Craccum a tip, you may do so on the website at any time). But a letter was sent to the Prime Minister, asking him if he was comfortable with a state sector employer using union-buster tactics, and he has said he will follow up with the relevant minister.
When asked about the ideal resolution, Wallace said leaving the clawbacks alone, and a pay rise in line with inflation was what the consensus of the Union seemed to be. In practicality, she accepted that there will most likely need to be nuance around that, especially when bargaining. There are few demands that the Union would make that would be truly unreasonable for the Employer to allow, and even fewer that government intervention in the next budget could not fix. Year on year, there has been a distinct neglect in the large covid budgets of the tertiary education sector. And while the cost of living will no doubt take priority again this year, a little bump could make a large difference to the unions and the university staff who comprise them.
Across non-union members, the support has been overwhelming, Craccum has found and been told. Staff who are not in the unions know that the collective agreements created from their talks define their own, and understand both the moral and economic arguments being made. Students stand in solidarity with strikers wherever they go, marching with signs and refusing to turn up to their classes. The second part may be unrelated, but there is no way to truly know. Overall, no negative feedback could be found from anyone outside the Vice Chancellor’s office.
“It is supposed to be he tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata, not te wāreti, te wāreti, te wāreti” are the parting words from our conversation with Wallace. It is supposed to be the people, the people, the people, not the wallet, the wallet, the wallet. In the end, financial positions can be reviewed, altered, deferred, or any other business lingo that you can give it, but the lecturers, the grounds people, the woman that fixes the projector, the man that stocks the shelves; they all rely on this institution to survive.