Last week was another wonderful display of solidarity at the University of Melbourne, with the NTEU embarking on our second week-long strike in as many months. While the previous industrial action was localised to five work areas, this strike brought out staff from across the entire university.
The strike was voted on and then reaffirmed in the largest meetings ever held by the union on campus, with more than 400 and 450 in attendance respectively. Cost-of-living pressures, deteriorating working conditions and the lack of movement at the bargaining table convinced many that the action was necessary. The success and inspiration of the previous strike in August—which forced the university to respond to our claims around job security for the first time, limited as the offer was—was another decisive factor. It became clear that serious strikes pressure university management like nothing else.
We walked out at 12pm on Monday 2 October, kicking off the week with a rally outside one of Duncan Maskell’s “Vice-Chancellor’s Roadshow” events at the Faculty of Science. Hundreds gathered in the foyer of the building, where our chants reverberated and disrupted the event from the outside, while staff in the lecture theatre took to the stage to challenge Maskell directly. It was a great start to the week.
Picket lines were set up every morning along the Swanston Street entrances of the campus. We held the line, approaching students, staff and other campus workers to explain the reasons for the strike, urging them to support our campaign and not enter the campus.
Many paused to take our leaflets and were willing to hear us out. There were a determined few, however, who insisted on breaking the line. The university’s head negotiator Martin Bower threatened to drive his motorbike through our picket on Thursday morning.
Proving that even bosses exaggerate their CVs, Bower describes himself on his LinkedIn as a “highly effective communicator” who’s “wide ranging experience in industrial relations provides a solid basis for building relations with unions and other external parties”.
This less-than verified charmer retreated after outraged staff members stood our ground. When he eventually drove off, possibly to work on his communication skills, the picket line erupted. “The workers united will never be defeated!” would have rung in his ears for a while.
Between rain showers and bursts of sun, strikers and student solidarity activists chanted and sung our hearts out. By Friday evening, I had three separate song sheets with the lyrics to union classics “Union maid”, “Which side are you on” and “On the picket line”, which we had belted out again and again throughout the week.
Staff across work areas and faculties also spent time swapping stories about their experiences at the university. Details of the pressure of unreasonable workloads, the stress of constant restructures, the lack of transparency and cruelty of management, were met in turn with stories of collective organising.
The campaign can be credited with drawing in a new layer of union activists prepared to organise and debate the way forward. For example, there was a flourishing of activity in the School of Mathematics and Statistics, with dozens of tutors on strike and more than 100 tutorials cancelled. The tutors continued to use the strike to build the union. They entered classes that were still running to make announcements about the strike and speak to staff not already involved, managing to recruit a few more staff members to the union.
Union and strike committee meetings throughout the week were well attended, members across the branch all discussing the next steps of the campaign. We face university managers who have consistently downplayed or ignored our key claims, a series of anti-union laws designed to curtail effective actions, as well as the limitations of our own union leaders—who too often have conceded rather than organised serious campaigns, let alone been prepared to confront the laws.
Despite these challenges, the mood at the end of the week was hopeful. A full band joined us at the pub for one last rendition of “Solidarity forever”, our voices—singing and scheming, organising and debating—floating off the rooftop bar and into the streets of Carlton as the strike came to a close.
The week was one to remember for everyone involved. It was the first week-long strike for many, the second strike for some. We shut down more than 500 classes, disrupted key administrative functions and student services, stood our ground and blocked university entrances, and, once again, forced the question of our demands onto the campus and onto management.
The campaign is far from won. But we have made serious gains in recruitment, rebuilding union traditions on campus, as well as helping to set an example for effective enterprise campaigning in the sector.
The Age recently described our campaign as “some of the most serious workplace unrest in the institution’s history”. For that, we should all be immensely proud.
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