Lessons from the Melbourne Uni enterprise agreement campaign

11 June 2024
Katie Wood

In 2023, the NTEU branch at Melbourne University undertook the longest strike action at a university since the union was formed in 1993. Activists, inspired by the long-haul strikes in the US and some significant wins at the branch in the past few years, decided on an ambitious campaign based around ambitious claims.

And yet, our branch has been left with an enterprise agreement (EA) that sends our rights backwards in key areas, and is far from the ambitious claims we set out to achieve. Understanding the promise and the limitations of the campaign, and particularly the role of union officials in dampening members’ aspirations, is important for future organising efforts.

The positives

The Melbourne University branch has seen some welcome developments over the past few years, based mainly around an attitude of more seriously organising members to fight for our rights. The wage theft campaign was an activist campaign, which also used the EA and the legal avenues provided by a strong clause around casual pay, and won the most back-pay for casuals out of any campus in Australia—$40 million and counting.

The branch also won a thumping victory against the university’s attempt to do away with one of our annual pay rises in 2021, following huge faculty meetings organised by the union. The union’s “vote no” campaign won more than double the number of votes as there are union members on campus.

Going into this EA round, we decided to improve on the usual process in order to increase rank-and-file involvement. Member working groups (based around work type such as casuals, professional staff, gender equity) met to discuss the core concerns of their areas and develop claims based on those. Six priority areas resulted:

  • Secure work—our key demand was for 80 percent of staff to have ongoing jobs, compared to less than 50 percent currently
  • Workload relief—filling all vacant positions, and a guaranteed 40 percent research fraction for all academic staff
  • Limits on restructures—no more than one for the life of this EA or no forced redundancies
  • Enforceable work from home rights
  • A pay increase of more than inflation
  • Gender equity—especially, dramatically improved parental leave

The branch also set up a strike committee. In the past, such groups had been called campaign committees, the idea being that this time we were making industrial action the core focus of the campaign. We began 2023 with a zoom link-up with activists from the incredible University of California strikes.

Our first four-hour strike resulted in around 1,500 staff and students joining a march to Trades Hall on 5 May—an indication of the widespread disgust and mistrust of senior management among staff. In the past ten years, the university has posted record profits and hoarded billions in assets while habitually sacking hundreds of staff. Workloads have increased and casualisation became entrenched.

The mood among staff at the university has been bitter for a long time, so the argument that we needed serious, sustained industrial action to change things for the better won an easy audience.

Solid organising in the arts faculty, mostly among the casualised sessional tutors and lecturers, built towards a marking ban at the end of first semester. But two weeks before that was to begin, we got the first warning that the NTEU leaders were unhappy with our ambition. They announced that the union was not prepared to support the ban, as they were too scared that the university might take us to the Fair Work Commission.

They were particularly scared of section 242 of the Fair Work Act, and an unfavourable decision by the Commission in 2013 around a marking ban. This is an extremely repressive legal tool, but the fact that the union was unwilling to support industrial action that had the potential to affect students says a lot about the industrial strategy of the NTEU leaders.

We will never be in a position to properly improve working conditions in the higher education sector unless we challenge that law. If the union leaders refuse to back action, we must be prepared to defy them, too. Unfortunately, this was the first time that many branch activists had experienced such a betrayal from the leaders, and we weren’t in a position at that stage to defy them. But it should have been a lesson better learned.

Two weeks on strike

The leadership’s refusal to support the marking ban threw the campaign into a bit of a quandary. Months were spent arguing about what sort of industrial action could be supported by the union leaders and effective enough to win ambitious claims. During this time, activists in Fightback, a rank-and-file group, proposed a one-day strike around the University Council meeting on 20 June, arguing that we couldn’t let the campaign languish without any action, even if a one-day strike was short of what we knew would be needed to win.

A plucky band of 300 members gave the vice-chancellor an eyeful during the council meeting. The strike also saw the emergence of members in student services as a backbone of our campaign. Members who previously had done little activity with the union picketed their workplace in the morning. They convinced enough of their workmates to join the picket (if they were union members) or even to join the union in order to strike, that we shut down the in-person student information centre for the first time ever.

Unfortunately, because some activists were dismissive of the strike, it was not well built in areas outside of student services and the library. But the student services response showed the branch a way forward—take any action seriously, involve members in building and organising that action, and more members will get a sense of their power. It was a model we could have used in other, less organised sections of the branch

It was in this situation that the bargaining team proposed the first step towards undercutting our ambitious claims, in a “heads of agreement”. It was the first major debate in the campaign. Our argument was that we should not water down our claims before we had even tried to fight for them. It was a signal to the bosses that we were heading down the usual NTEU path—asking less so that we don’t have to fight for more. It was something of a positive that we managed to force the debate into the open.

With semester two approaching, the campaign had to decide on action, but was still going around in circles. The arts activists cut through with a vote in a faculty members’ meeting for a week-long strike in week six. Fantastic! While many activists (including Fightback) had argued for sustained, indeed open-ended, strikes from May, there was still some uncertainty about how other union members would respond to a call for a week-long strike.

Activists from Fightback argued that the week-long strike should be made branch-wide—that such an action in arts alone would not have the same impact and risked being isolated and possibly open to retaliation. We argued that the strike and branch committees should support an all-branch week-long strike at the members’ meeting called to decide the question.

Unfortunately, many of the arts activists and the branch leadership insisted that only local areas (faculties, schools or non-academic divisions) could vote to join the week-long strike. The vote was narrowly won by the branch leadership, with around ten votes’ difference in a meeting of hundreds of members. Having lost the vote, we were still determined to try to ensure that the arts strike was not isolated.

Fightback members in the library and student services called meetings and organised around supporting week-long strikes in those areas. Members in those areas correctly saw that such a piecemeal strike was less effective; some who had voted for a week-long all-branch strike, voted against local area week-long strikes. But others agreed that arts should not be left to go it alone, and the votes in those areas won out, as did votes in the Law School and one of the schools at the Victorian College of the Arts.

Once the votes were up, we had a short amount of time to organise a week-long strike program for each area! We organised pickets each morning at our buildings to speak to students and other workmates about the importance of the strike. We joined other areas’ in teach-ins and organised rallies at the areas we could, in order to bring members on strike from different areas together as much as possible.

The students’ strike support tent in the centre of campus became a welcome rest hub and also a space where we held meetings on the radical history of Melbourne University, on explaining our log of claims, and on fighting repressive industrial relations laws. The members who participated in that strike, although losing a whole weeks’ pay, felt galvanised and united—we had stood together for the kind of higher education system we believed in.

Student services and the library held a joint organising meeting on the last day of the strike. That meeting was one of the most inspiring things I have participated in during fifteen years of union activism! Listening to the conclusions drawn from colleagues who had only recently got active and felt their own nascent power as workers was something of a glimpse of those moments in history when that happens on a mass scale.

Going back to work felt a bit odd. We held our breath for a few days with no word from senior management or our bargaining team. And then, the university finally responded. After a year of refusing to even discuss our secure work target, they relented by responding to our 80 percent secure work target with an offer of 75 percent. Although there were plenty of loopholes, it was the first time any such ratio had been offered in higher education. At the members’ meeting following, members drew the conclusion that our strike had worked.

But still the question of what sort of effective industrial action we could take in the limits imposed by the union persisted. Some of the arts activists proposed an indefinite strike, limited to the arts faculty, but that was narrowly defeated. Such an action would have been even more isolating than the week-long. But there was little acknowledgement that it was a moot point anyway—we had been told that the union leaders would not notify for an indefinite strike. And so a second week-long strike was born.

Just before a members’ meeting was to vote on the second week-long strike, the bargaining team convinced the branch committee to defer the vote for a week, arguing that it jeopardised movement at the bargaining table. We knew that was a prelude to calling the strike off altogether. At the members’ meeting, against the recommendation of the branch committee, we moved a procedural motion to put the strike vote, which was supported by a large majority of members. A motion that the strike only go ahead if more than 60 percent of the meeting endorsed it was then voted down—members were in a bolshie mood! More than 60 percent of members in the meeting then voted for an all-branch, week-long strike.

We set about organising the next strike. We argued for all-in pickets at the major entrances to the campus with local areas picketing their own buildings if they chose. These pickets became a focal point for the strike and galvanised members who participated—especially when the head of the university’s bargaining team appeared to attempt to drive through the picket line on his motorbike.

Rallies at student services and the VCA were highlights of the week, too. The testimony from rank-and-file members, many of whom had never given public speeches before, was compelling and even eye-opening, as they detailed the personal cost of working in a system that is broken. The repeated renditions of “Solidarity forever” at the pub at the end of the week was a beautiful way to finish. There was again movement at the table, with some of the more blatant loopholes in the secure work target being closed.

But the campaign now faced a crossroad. The union’s state secretary moved in, and under the guise of “getting the decision-makers at the table” imposed a new order on bargaining. Throughout the campaign, we struggled with a lack of timely, regular and written bargaining reports, and no bargaining chart. This was bad enough, but the lack of accessible, easy-to-read guides on the importance of our claims and how they were worded also meant that when the union leaders insisted on watering down the claims (“renegotiating” them), members were not as informed as they ought to have been.

Momentum is key to any industrial campaign. And powerful forces within both management and the union hierarchy were now moving to suck momentum out of our dispute. In the wash-up of the second week-long strike, the bargaining team agreed (or proposed—we’re not quite sure) to a “ceasefire”—in which they engaged in negotiations while imposing a ban on both industrial action and even communications to members about what was happening. They also presented to members a “package”—another rewrite of our claims—with little notice and threatened that negotiations would be derailed (and our strike would be in vain) if we didn’t vote for it. Members of Fightback argued for a deferral of that vote to give members time to debate the proposal, but it was narrowly defeated, and the package was approved.

Having lost two weeks of pay within a couple of months, it’s not surprising that some members were open to the suggestion that further strikes were unnecessary. State office was happy to oblige. The official union communications, backed by management, that things were progressing nicely at the table, but without detail, fed into a sense that all would be well. It was well into December that the proposed agreement, supported by the union bargaining team and management, was sent to members. Initially, the branch leaders wanted to give us just a few days to read it before voting to agree. Thankfully, that plan was rejected, and we were given until early February before the vote.

The more that we analysed the proposed agreement, the more we realised what a sell-out it was. Our lesser-paid colleagues would go backwards in terms of real wages, two of our end-of-year shutdown days were swapped for forced annual leave, work from home rights were diminished and the “pay for all hours worked” clause, which had been the foundation for the wage theft campaign, had been deleted.

There were some improvements, of course. The university proposed a better parental leave clause, we got gender affirmation leave (including for casuals) and a minimum 20 percent research clause for academics, which had not been written into the Melbourne University EA before. The tragedy is that these partial victories were accepted when we could have won much more if we had been clearer on our industrial strategy and willing to take on the union’s refusal to back effective action.

We decided to run a campaign to vote “No”. The proposal was an insult to members—dramatically diminishing our rights in our supposed “priority” concerns. To agree to such a proposal after such lengthy industrial action, particularly when there was plenty of potential left in our campaign, would undermine the organising that we had done throughout the year and make it more difficult in the future. Why should members trust that we should engage in lengthy (especially open-ended) strikes for ambitious claims if we were so willing to jettison such claims this time around.

We faced serious opposition from the branch leaders in organising the campaign. The branch committee refused to allow the circulation of vote “No” material, so we had only our own networks to distribute critical information. Despite this, at the largest members’ meeting ever, with more than 600 members’ attending, we won a “No” vote of 27 percent, the highest “No” vote in the country. That showed a significant minority of the active branch membership agreed that we should have continued to demand more.

Lessons to learn

Besides the historic defeat of the union leaders’ Jobs Protection Framework, the NTEU has a lengthy track record of successfully curtailing members’ interest for a proper fight for our working conditions. This campaign was no exception.

Unfortunately, this is a lesson that seems to have been ignored by some branch activists. A sum-up of the campaign in Jacobin magazine doesn’t once criticise the union leaders. Calling for open-ended strikes and recognising that solid rank-and-file organising will be necessary to get there is a good starting point.

But our union leaders said explicitly that they will not support such strikes, and in fact were the only reason that the arts marking ban did not happen. If we don’t confront their power over our campaigns, we’re kidding ourselves. The authors of the Jacobin article rightly praise the University of California Santa Cruz vote “No” campaign, seeing that it played an important role in solidifying a left on that campus. Yet there’s not a word in support of the vote “No” campaign at their own campus.

There were other weaknesses in the campaign. It lacked regular spaces for members at different levels (branch, local, faculty, etc.) to get together to debate campaign strategy and tactics. These spaces need to be seen as just as important in rank-and-file organising as spreadsheets showing the outcome of one-on-one conversations. There were also no timely, regular, detailed communications from the bargaining table, and no accessible explainers of the original claims. These limitations made it easier for the union leaders and bargaining team to water down solidly worded claims with little scrutiny.

Despite the limitations, the campaign at Melbourne University was one that all members who participated should be proud. Our weeks of strike built our branch to the largest in the country. Hundreds of members gained experience in union organising for the first time. We had large and engaged strike committees, and plenty of debates that will mean these union members have more experience to judge debates in the future.

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