Staff at Uni Melb’s art school plead for better working conditions

Staff at Uni Melb’s art school plead for better working conditions

Following an historic, week-long staff strike at the University of Melbourne’s (UoM) Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) bargaining team walked out of negotiations on September 4 after university management failed to acknowledge the union’s core demands.

NTEU members at VCA participated in an industrial action strike from August 28 to September 3 to negotiate better working conditions, with insecure work being one of the union’s top priorities.

The strike was the largest union meeting at the Southbank campus in more than a decade, with VCA staff members joining the picket line alongside other branches at UoM’s Parkville campus, including the Arts faculty, Melbourne Law School (MLS), and library and student services.

Despite thousands of classes across the two campuses being cancelled throughout the week, the NTEU bargaining team did not receive a response from university management until the afternoon of September 1, five days into the seven-day strike.

With no proposal put forward by management to address secure work, the bargaining team walked out of negotiations the following week in frustration of their failure to recognise the damaging effects of insecure work on UoM staff.

“Management has shown disrespect and disregard for workers throughout this negotiation process,” NTEU Victorian division assistant secretary, Joo-Cheong Tham said in an NTEU bargaining update.

“Until we receive a proposal on secure work, we have told management there is nothing for us to discuss,” Mr Tham said.

Over a two-week break in negotiation, university management has since responded to the NTEU’s original recommendation for 80 per cent of staff to be put on ongoing contracts by the end of 2025, however there is still “much more distance to run and considerable work to do.”

Management’s counteroffer is to place 75 per cent of staff on a 12 month contract or longer, but it is not clear whether UoM already meets this threshold.

In an article published in The Saturday Paper, staff members Lisa Radford and Sophie Knezic from VCA’s art school described employment in the arts as “mostly intermittent, freelance or contract-based”, making the need for secure work even more crucial.

“Staff are subject to constant restructures and semester-to-semester or short fixed-term contracts that result in widespread exploitation, mainly through excessive unpaid working hours,” Ms Radford and Ms Knezic wrote in the article.

As well as addressing insecure work, the NTEU is also pushing for a stronger proposal from university management to provide “safe and sustainable” workloads, with staff from UoM walking off the job again on September 15 to protest the issue.

An additional week-long strike is currently under way from October 2 to October 8, in hope that management will respond with stronger proposals that support staff.

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