Tertiary Education Union (TEU) members at the University of Auckland went on a one hour strike on September 22nd at midday. As a first strike action we wanted to send a clear, largely symbolic message, to the university’s leadership that we are unwilling to accept a bargaining process that has not progressed at all with respect to compensation for our members. This has been a persistent tack when it comes to bargaining: over the last several years, our employer has disengaged further and further from any discussions around wages.
The university claims they are in no position to discuss salaries until budgets for 2017 are finalised, in October or November. That of course means that any “offer” of a salary increase would not subject to further negotiations: the budget will have been finalised, after all. However, many of our members manage budgets as part of our work. We know there has already been a salary model disseminated through various finance and budgeting systems for a few months. Those of us applying for external grants from agencies like the Marsden Fund have also given guidance about what sorts of salary increments to expect for the next several years. In other words, the university wants set salaries rather than negotiate them.
What is interesting, however, is that we have purposefully made claims around compensation that distinctly disadvantage many of our members. In fact, we have not asked for any percentage salary increase this year. Instead we have proposed fairness be the guiding principle.
Our claims around compensation seek to address the stark inequity between the wages and working conditions of academic staff and our professional staff colleagues. We have proposed:
1. Elimination of wages in the collective that do not constitute a living wage for persons living in Auckland
2. Elimination of a flawed performance-based compensation review process
3. A process for developing a progression system for professional staff
4. A flat $2,500 increase in salary for all members
Academic staff—for the most part—already have #1-3 above. We get an annual salary increase (usually to midpoint), then we apply for promotion. Professional staff are hired at a salary for their role and stay there, unless they find a new role—at the University of Auckland or elsewhere. There are also no academic salaries in our collective below a living wage; a few persist for professional staff salary scales. Associate Professors and Professors can be granted merit-based salary increases, but these are our most respected and empowered members, who are adept at advocating for themselves have indicated such to us. Less than 10 per cent of our professional staff members get a performance-based salary increase in any given year; perhaps 30 per cent get a small one-off bonus in a given year. The combination of no salary progression, rare performance-based salary increases, and infrequent bonuses has led to wage stagnation—in New Zealand’s most expensive metropolitan area.
Our flat salary increase proposal is designed to disrupt a trend where academic salaries and professional staff salaries drift farther and farther apart. It would mean staff on lower wages will see their wages increase more quickly; those of us already well compensated will still see increases. We are also advocating for a formal review process to determine the extent to which professional staff compensation here is market competitive, fair, and affords opportunities for growth and advancement—exactly what our academic members already have.
When added together, the conditions of employment for professional staff at our university are poor —and getting worse. That matters to us—deeply. We work together, as a team, and professional staff contributions to the research, teaching and service enterprises of the university are as important as academic ones.
Currently in New Zealand union members can strike, but their employer can suspend workers during a strike and dock their pay for the period of any strike. For a one hour, lunchtime action you would perhaps assume that the work required to collate data about who participated, their wages and the proportional amount to reduce them, would be more trouble than it is worth.
You would be wrong: that is precisely what the University of Auckland is doing. Since mid-week a flurry of spreadsheets has been circulated to identify which TEU members would be participating in the job action. Yesterday and today managers have been rolling up these data back to HR.
Most importantly, the churlish tone of the communication from our Director of Human Resources has catalyzed our members. Members who were unable to participate in the strike have asked for their wages to be reduced in solidarity regardless. Others have offered to contribute to our branch committee an equivalent amount to support our bargaining campaign. We have received hundreds of messages of support indicating a well of frustration with both the substance and tone of university communication regarding this week’s strike.
The University of Auckland relies on the good will of its staff to operate. That is not an overstatement: nearly every single one of us—TEU members and not—work a great deal of overtime, some as much as an extra 40 hours a week. For academics this involves conducting and disseminating research, teaching courses, supervising research students, managing laboratories and research centres, and a broad range of service work. A remarkable number of us never take our full four weeks of annual leave. If we are sick on a teaching day we–rightly or wrongly—front up regardless. We work into the night to get feedback to students, colleagues and collaborators.
No one works at a university to become a millionaire. We don’t expect applause, or prizes. But we do expect respect, professionalism, and tact. Threatening to deduct one hour of our wages for this week’s strike action is petty and insulting—and inspiring. Fairer pay and fairer working conditions for all our TEU members at the University of Auckland are principals our members are willing to fight for.
John P Egan, University of Auckland