IT was the height of national uncertainty over COVID-19 in late March when the University of Newcastle's senior management decided to extend the looming Easter break by eight days, giving more than 3300 staff an extra three days of paid leave, but taking the other five days from each employee's annual leave account.
The Community and Public Sector Union did not object to the direction, but the National Tertiary Education Union - which represents non-academic or "professional" staff as well as academics - did, lodging a dispute a week or so later with the Fair Work Commission.
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In a decision on Tuesday, a deputy president of the commission, Anna Booth, ordered the five days of leave to be re-credited to those affected, including academics who have since left the university.
In her 22-page decision, Ms Booth found the the relevant enterprise agreements did "permit" the university to direct staff to take leave, but the way it went about it was "not fair and reasonable", even though exemptions were granted to about 600 staff.
Ms Booth, a former vice-president of the ACTU, said the circumstances facing the parties was "a perfect storm".
COVID had created "a sense of urgency" for the university, which announced the decision the day after it was made.
"The University's siloed decision making was exacerbated by a lack of considered dialogue with the representatives of those affected," Ms Booth wrote in her concluding sentences.
"As a consequence some of the matters that would usually be had regard to when making a decision like this were missed.
"Unfortunately, the old saying 'act in haste, repent at leisure' appears apt."
All large organisations where unions are an established part of the industrial relations culture are likely to experience formal disputes from time to time but NTEU president Dan Conway says the fact that the university is still pursuing a similarly compulsory nine-day shutdown over Christmas is example of unnecessarily aggressive management.
In her decision, Ms Booth notes that Mr Conway had asked Vice-Chancellor Alex Zelinsky for a short delay to allow him to check with his union, but Professor Zelinsky had declined his request, and responded by saying: "Bad news is not like a fine wine Dan. It doesn't get better with age."
That may be the case, but the FWC decision also indicates that with more co-operation, the bad news might have been avoided altogether.
READ THE FULL DECISION HERE
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