Historic RMIT staff strike

14 April 2024
James McVicarZavia Lingenti
RMIT workers on a picket line during their strike PHOTO: Liam Ward

Staff at RMIT University went on strike for three-and-a-half days last month. It was the longest and biggest strike in the university’s 127-year history. Their demands include reduced and manageable workloads, and a pay rise above inflation. Striking staff were joined by students at three major entrances to the campus.

In 2022, RMIT took in more than $1.2 billion in revenue. Vice-chancellor Alec Cameron takes home nearly $1 million a year. Where does this cash come from? Squeezing as much as possible out of overworked, underpaid and precariously employed staff.

In a damning report about widespread wage theft in higher education released by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) last year, RMIT was the third-worst offender with $10 million in proven stolen pay. What the bosses can’t get by outright theft they manage by other means: maintaining inadequate wages and work conditions.

The first day of the strike, 25 March, marked 1,000 days since the last workplace agreement expired. Since then, inflation has risen by more than 15 percent, while staff have been given only two pay rises of 2 percent and 3 percent.

Workloads are also a major problem. RMIT staff, like many others in the education sector, are highly overworked and complete hours of unpaid overtime, particularly since hundreds of jobs were cut during the pandemic.

“I coordinated seven courses across two degrees, both undergrad and masters [and] I’m a contact point for 300 to 400 students”, Dooyeon Park from the School of Media and Communication explained to Red Flag.

Higher education is one of the most casualised sectors in the country. Over 60 percent of RMIT staff are casuals, meaning their work is unstable and precarious.

One tutor in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies who has been on a casual contract for seven years told Red Flag that they are “constantly wondering if [they] would have a job next semester”.

Another striking staff member has worked at RMIT for more than ten years, most of that time in casual positions. When he sought a permanent position, management refused on the grounds that the classes he taught fell on different days from one semester to the next, and so didn’t qualify as regular work.

On top of working conditions other bosses only dream of, RMIT management has deployed union-busting tactics by trying to cut the NTEU out of negotiations with multiple non-union ballots. That’s been coupled with a strategy of dragging out negotiations over a new workplace agreement for as long as possible. Liam Ward, a lecturer at RMIT and an elected member of the NTEU branch committee, told Red Flag:

“It is disgusting and outrageous that RMIT management has dragged this out for 1,000 days and refused to provide us a real agreement that would meet our needs as staff in this institution. But we are making it clear to them that we will take 1,000 more if that’s what’s needed. We aren’t going to sign any old crap, we are only going to sign an agreement that makes our life better. We will keep fighting and won’t stop till we win.”

Staff know it’s their labour that keeps the university running. As NTEU RMIT branch President Tricia McLaughlin said at the opening rally: “We are RMIT, and we deserve better!”.

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