Union boss made the leap from theory to praxis

Just a few weeks off the shop floor, Alison Barnes is settling into her new role as president of the ­National Tertiary Education Union. The shop floor — also known as Macquarie University — had been Barnes’s employer since 2010. She worked there as a full-time senior lecturer in the depart­ment of marketing and management until she left to begin work in her union position.

Barnes won a union election earlier this year, and takes the reins from Jeannie Rea, who was president for eight years. Rea did not stand for election this time round, and she approves of Barnes coming straight from university employment to lead the union.

Among other subjects, Barnes taught industrial relations at Macquar­ie, meaning she has jumped directly from the theory of industrial relations to its practice.

Many of her colleagues were casual­ly employed and others were on short-term contracts, so she understands how challenging life on a precarious income can be in any number of ways. The lack of parental leave, holiday pay and sick pay can be difficult to manage on a restricted income. And anyon­e who doesn’t have a permanent job can have difficulties getting loans or a mortgage.

So Barnes is pleased the NTEU is pressing ahead with a campaign to emphasise the hardships of life working as a casual. The union recent­ly established a national casua­ls committee to work on improvi­ng conditions for casuals and pushing universities to create more permanent positions for those casuals who have already put in years at any one university, where they may have been employe­d on rolling semester-long contracts.

“Other than inadequate funding for universities, I think cas­ually employed labour is the most significant problem that we face,” she says. “We have been, and we will continue to campaign ­strongly around ensuring that the sector relies less on precariously ­employed workers.”

The union, she adds, continues to be “keenly concerned” about the ever-increasing employment of casuals in universities, a result of the institutions’ ever-present drive to save money. Enterprise bargaining agreement negotiations, she says, are a way to addres­s this concern with university managers, and there has already been some progress in that direction.

“I think even at my own university (Macquarie) — we just finish­ed negotiations around the academic staff agreement — there was, I think, for the first time, an acknowledgment that casual­isation was problematic for the university, and I think management or HR were looking at ways to resolve that,” Barnes says.

Now living in Sydney with her partner and their 11-year-old daughter, she knows the family will likely move to Melbourne at some point in the future to be closer to the NTEU’s national office.

Although she is finding her feet as national president of the nation­’s largest university-educa­tion union, Barnes has been a committed member of a union since she was a student, when she was studying industrial relations while working in a call centre.

As a call centre employ­ee, she joined the Australian Services Union. When she graduated and found employment as an academic, she joined the NTEU. She worked as a casual employee at the University of Sydney and the University of NSW before she finishe­d her doctorate in 2005 and got her first tenured job at Western Sydney University.

Despite her later academic succes­s, Barnes’s education had a rocky start. Her father died of cance­r when she was doing her final high school exams (the Higher School Certificate in NSW) and so she failed. She later won entry via a university prepar­ation progra­m, where she was the youngest person in the class and took note of her fellow students, older men and women who were looking to a university education to change their lives.

Then she went abroad for a year before starting university, and found herself working in factorie­s in The Netherlands. She found standing at an assembly line, sometimes for 12 hours at a stretch, extremely difficult. On one line at a cockle-tinning ­factory, she stood at the line ­picking debris off the shellfish. “It’s incredibly monotonous and that’s soul-destroying,” she says.

So she found university back in Australia a refreshing change: “I loved it. It was great to have the opportunity to think about all these things and discuss ideas. And challenge things.” She eventually did her doctorate at the University of NSW on how individ­ual resistance to things that happen in a workplace could be turned into collective resistance, and she drew on her experience of working in a call centre for her thesis.

Like most students these days, she had to pay for her university tuition. “I remember paying off my final HECS debt,” she says. “It was an exciting moment.”

Since then she has continued her smooth sweep through universit­y, from undergraduate student to doctoral student, to tutor to lecturer and finally senior lecturer teaching, among other things, a first-year course called Principles of Management to 1500-1800 students per semester.

“I love researching but I also alway­s loved teaching because it’s an opportunity to engage with stud­ents, and that’s often very fulfilling,” she says. “Students are a great source of encouragement and young people are interesting.”

For that course, only Barnes and her teaching assistant had permanent positions, and between 23 and 27 casuals also worked on the unit.

“Academics and professional staff are committed to higher education and universities; for many of us it’s a vocation,” she says. “We don’t want to see people working alongside us employed on worse conditions with less secur­ity than we have ourselves. It’s a sign that the system is breaking.”

She points out that the increasing reliance on casuals has risks for universities, simply because of the cyclical loss of knowledge. “If I have to work with a bunch of new casuals every semester, that increas­es my workload,” she says. “The casuals are often on a learning curve; they might be teaching a unit for the first time.”

At the same time, universities have to be wary of introducing teaching-only positions, Barnes warns. “I think the dominant model should be research and teaching,” she says. “Teaching-only positions aren’t automatic­ally bad. There’s always a proportion of staff who decide they want to focus on teaching. But I think that should be a choice for staff to make, rather than something that people are forced into. People shouldn’t be forced into teaching-only positions.”

She’s not necessarily opposed to block teaching, the syste­m introduced by Victoria University that has led to some staff discontent. But such a system needs to be introduced in an appropriate way with staff concerns in mind, she says. “Block teaching can’t be a Trojan horse for introducing teaching-only positions by stealth,” she adds. “There needs to be adequate buffers built in for staff and students.

“Intensive learning can be satis­fying for both the staff membe­r and the student, but you need to be very careful that you have the buffers built in.”

Barnes understands that Victori­a University is dealing with financial difficulties, but she doesn’t believe the solution will be one that increases work intensity or damages staff morale.

“If universities behave in ways that are militant or aggressive that has consequences for their brand,” she says. “The capacity to attract and retain students can be weakene­d. Parents and students don’t necessarily look favourably on universities that declare war on their staff.”