Semesterisation battle turns ugly

In a long running  dispute in Trinity over the semesterisation of term durations the University has, in recent weeks, sent home library staff who were working to ‘contract’. Semesterisation refers to the movement of the academic year structure. Staff who turned up for regular 9-5 hour shifts were advised by senior library management that they were required to work an evening duty shift from 15.30 to  22.00 hours despite the fact that there is no agreement with their trade union on the matter.
Late last year the Vice-Provost/Chief Academic Officer (Patrick Prendergast) advised the university board that, further to implementing the new academic year structure in Michaelmas Term 2008, discussions had taken place with staff representative groups. He stated that significant progress had been made and that, although there were still some outstanding issues to be resolved, the discussions had been positive and had not identified any issues that would prevent the implementation of the new academic year structure.
The board, noting that negotiations with trade unions and staff representative groups will continue throughout the implementation phase, approved the move to the new academic year structure effective from 2009/2010.
Discussions took place locally in an attempt to resolve issues which SIPTU had identified as blockages to the smooth implementation of semesterisation. These discussions had begun before the Board decision but meetings were slow to take place until the Fellows of the College and the Board had given their assent.
Indeed, some managerial areas saw this as an opportunity to cut budgetary costs and services. In March 2009, a very tempestuous meeting took place with the TCD personnel department to no avail. The matter was raised by the 3 SIPTU representatives on the Board of TCD and assurances were given that everything would be sorted before too long.
The Board repesentatives met the Chief Operations Officer (COO) and he assured them that a solution would be found. An offer of two days annual leave on a once-off basis was refused as staff were of the view that the settlement in the Waterford Institute of Technology V IMPACT dispute of five days was the least they would accept. The university parted company with the Chief Operations Officer around this time and the Staff Secretary was appointed as the acting COO.
At the beginning of the 2009/10 Academic year, despite the assurances of all concerned, there was no agreement in place with the ICTU trade unions on semesterisation although the main organisation representing Academic staff in TCD, IFUT/ASA had come to some agreement on academic issues of concern including no end of term examinations, and the placing of a reading week within the new term structure.
The matter trundled on over the summer of 2009 without resolution. Eventually, SIPTU referred the matter to the Labour Relations Commission and a solution was brokered.  At the insistence of the university,  staff were balloted by the TCD ICTU Group of Unions. SIPTU members showed their good faith in the matter by working a revised evening duty roster for September and December including many weeks of unsocial hours while the matter was under discussion.
SIPTU balloted on the issue and accepted by a wide majority the LRC proposal which brokered the solution over a 2 days +3 days formula. SIPTU notified the university at a local meeting that it had accepted the LRC recommendation.
At the same time the national talks on the Public Sector were progressing before the Budget date of December 9th. On December 4th the government pulled the plug on the sectoral discussions and with that decision any hope of identifying a change agenda.In the absence of any agreement SIPTU advised management that its staff in the library would work to their contracts and would work 9-5 the week after the festive holidays as they had done for nine of the last ten years.
On the final day before the holidays SIPTU members in the library received an email from the librarian, Robin Adams, which many staff members took as threatening. It advised:
“In this regard staff, who are rostered to work on the evening roster in the week commencing 4th January 2010, should report for work at the prescribed 3:30 pm start time each day, as normal.
In accordance with agreed Trade Union/College Grievance Procedures, and in line with industrial relations best practice, where local agreement cannot be reached on a dispute the matter is progressed to the Labour Relations Commission and ultimately the Labour Court, if necessary. I can confirm that College management is committed to a resolution of this matter through such participation.
I am to confirm that any action contrary to the above direction will be viewed as industrial action, with the inherent associated consequences.”
On January 4th-7th SIPTU members who were included on a rostered week with which they had not agreed presented themselves for work from 9-5. They were sent home and advised to report back at 3.30 pm. Many staff members viewed the conduct of management on the issue as the lowest nadir of the university’s colourful industrial relations history. The dispute had been to the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) where a solution was brokered. However, following the collapsing by government of discussions with the Public Service unions in December and despite the fact that SIPTU had balloted in favour of an LRC recommendation, the University has unilaterally decided to impose changes in work practices.
SIPTU has over 110 members in the Library on the grades affected. The spotlight now turns from SIPTU to other ICTU unions which have difficulties with the fact that there is no agreement in place for the old Hilary and Trinity terms. UNITE trade union are believed to be consulting staff in the matter and word from that quarter is expected imminently.
As for the 2010/11 Academic Year, there is no agreement in place with SIPTU and the likelihood of the matter continuing, unresolved, into another academic year is not as far fetched as it seems. The possibility of staff changing their view in the light of managerial intransigence, and students being without Library evening facilities in late August, September and into October is looking ever more likely unless somebody brokers an equitable solution.
So much for World Class Universities in Ireland!

Dr Jack McGinley is a SIPTU representative in Trinity, and Supervisor of Campus Bookstacks.