La Trobe University staff recently struck for 36 hours. The industrial action was the longest ever organised by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) at the university. The background to the dispute is the seemingly endless enterprise bargaining process, but the trigger was the vice-chancellor’s February announcement that the university will scrap 350 jobs.
An initial members’ meeting vote for a 48-hour strike was subsequently amended to 36 hours by the branch committee. The change was to allow for a members’ midday strike meeting on the first day of the strike, Wednesday, 28 March.
While union coverage at the La Trobe branch is comparatively high, we are not in a position of strength when the numbers of active delegates and members are considered. Building the ambitious action was left to a small number of activists, with extra resources from branch organisers, and the union’s national office.
Perhaps surprisingly then, a large meeting of more than 200 members kicked off the strike on the Bundoora campus. At least 80 staff picketed the campus on Thursday morning. Pickets were also held at the Albury Wodonga, Bendigo and city campuses. Along with the good number of non-picketing staff who likely stayed at home during the strike, this is a good response for an NTEU action.
Of course, these numbers represent a minority of staff. The recent Sydney University experience remains the best guide to action for members in other states. There, a much larger number of activists were able to organise numerous rallies against cuts and then mount a sustained campaign of strike action during bargaining.
In Bundoora, a members’ meeting voted to set up a campaign committee to fight the job cuts, and almost a dozen volunteered for it. This is important and a small step forward. To build the sort of union we need, we have to begin with the handfuls of people who aren’t demoralised but are willing to be part of building our strength in every school and department.
On this occasion, the response of La Trobe staff may have surprised management. The growing discontent caused by increased workloads is visible. Of course, more action will be required because job cuts are still on the table. Students as well will need to mobilise to strengthen this campaign.