A small group of union members protested last week in Utrecht against the university’s failure to reach a collective agreement. They handed out alarm clocks to wake up the university’s leadership. Trade union FNV is calling it a lightning strike.

The negotiations that started back in March will continue today. These negotiations are about salaries, of course, but also about work pressure and social safety. The latter in particular seems to be an obstacle. FNV executive Bernard Koekoek mentioned reluctance from management.

Not serious

Several universities have been in the news because of undesirable behaviour, says Koekoek. “We have now gone through five rounds of negotiations, but they still don’t understand that they have to do something about this. If you ask me, you’re not taking your own employees seriously if you don’t want to address this.”

What the unions want? Koekoek calls for a ban on ‘nondisclosure clauses’ that keep misconduct under wraps. He also advocates for lower thresholds for employees reporting problems and strengthening the structure around the ombudsman and the confidential adviser.

'We are open to it'

Do universities reject this? No, says spokesperson Ruben Puylaert of the UNL employers’ association. “We are open to making agreements on this. However, the collective bargaining is still ongoing, so obviously the outcomes are not yet clear.”

He cannot say on which point the directors disagree with the unions. “Just like the employees’ associations, UNL wants to improve social safety in universities”, he explains. “It is unacceptable for staff and students to have to deal with undesirable behaviour.”

The talks with the unions are ‘part of a broader package of social safety measures’, Puylaert says. The universities are working on a joint action plan. Furthermore, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science has a social safety programme, in which UNL is developing a ‘comprehensive approach’ to social safety together with unions and students, among other parties.

Temporary contracts

Temporary contracts are a different story. According to unions, it is harder to speak out against misconduct if you are on a temporary contract. If they find you troublesome, they just won’t renew your contract and you’re gone. This is said to factor into social safety issues.

Universities are taking on more permanent staff; this was also agreed in an administrative agreement with the Ministry. However, the elections may throw a spanner in the works: the incoming government wants to cut this funding. It is not yet clear what this means for the increase in permanent contracts. The universities have just announced that they are considering legal action against those cuts.

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