UCOL staff set to strike

LUCY TOWNEND
Last updated 12:00 28/01/2014

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More than 220 UCOL workers across the North Island are set to strike after pay negotiations soured.

UCOL academic and support staff are planning to raise picket lines outside the polytechnic's campuses, in Palmerston North, Whanganui and Masterton, on Thursday in a protest calling for fairer pay.

The action was spurred by a breakdown in negotiations between the Tertiary Education Union and the polytechnic, which said there would be no across-the-board pay rise for staff this year. The union is wanting a 2.5 per cent pay rise, but UCOL is unwilling to meet this, offering no general pay rise.

TEU Palmerston North representative Lawrence O'Halloran said UCOL staff salaries struggled to match inflation.

"It's an opportunity for us to send a clear message to UCOL's chief executive [Paul McElroy] that it's not business as usual - staff need him to pay a fair wage."

UCOL holds an annual meeting where staff are normally transported to Palmerston North from the other campuses to talk about the academic year ahead. This year's instalment was pencilled in for Thursday, but workers received an email from UCOL's leadership at the weekend saying a series of smaller staff meetings across the three campuses would be run instead.

UCOL says this was for convenience and to add "a more personal touch".

The union had planned to strike during that meeting, but now a three-tiered protest across campuses will take place. Mr O'Halloran said this could be the start of something more widespread, including work-to-rule or a withdrawal of goodwill.

UCOL communications director Christine Beech said it was not in a position to offer a pay increase this year due to well-documented funding cuts from policy makers.

UCOL's 447 equivalent fulltime staff received a 2.5 per cent pay rise in 2012 and last month an $800 one-off payment was made to all workers. In 2008 the average salary was $56,813, and in 2012 it was $63,230.

The 2013 Annual Report documenting last year's average earnings is due to be published in April.

Mrs Beech said students and services shouldn't be affected by the action.

"At this time of year the majority of UCOL courses have not yet begun and impact on students will be minimal, if any."

The Association of Students at UCOL (AS@U) president Danny Goodman said students stayed on the periphery amid such controversies, but if there was an impact on tuition, students' perspectives could change.

"Anything that affects students' abilities to complete a qualification in a timely manner is a concern, but if staff are being treated unfairly by the institution, then they should be able to rectify that how they see fit," he said.

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"[I imagine] there will be some show of solidarity to the staff."

TEU deputy secretary Nanette Cormack said it was disappointing to see the beginning of the academic year start this way, but by taking actions early the aim was to avoid disrupting students' education later in the year.

"Academics and support staff have sat on stagnant pay for too long, and are finding it harder to support their families."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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