Fighting university wage theft means defending every job

3 September 2020
Roz Ward

Australian universities have been stealing the wages of their most vulnerable workers for years. Almost one in four of Australia’s public universities is currently “repaying money, undertaking audits or in dispute with casual staff”, according to a recent ABC report. Top of the list is one of the richest institutions in the country, Melbourne University, with an executive team that were collectively paid a princely $12,198,000 last year.

Several years of organising by unionised workers have managed to bring university wage theft into the open and forced managements to scramble their defences around the country. In particular, casuals and their activist allies at Melbourne University have built their strength through collective organising—systematic outreach, public actions, meetings and relentless determination. There have been no shortcuts to success.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), in the wake of their failed National Jobs Protection Framework, have jumped on the chance to make a splash in the media, national president Alison Barnes promising to “launch a wave of class actions”.

It should go without saying that maintaining hard-won wages is core union business. That is why it was so important that, when the union leaders tried to push a deal with the vice-chancellors that would rob workers across the sector of 15 percent of their salaries, a rank and file campaign led by NTEU Fightback was able to destroy their plans and force the Framework to be abandoned.

The current union leadership has been well aware of the dual problems of casualisation and wage theft for many years. Available data suggests that up to 70 percent of workers employed in universities today have insecure contracts.

Back in 2013, doctoral research by Robyn May at Melbourne University showed that “casual employment, a unique Australian expression of insecure employment, has become embedded in the university sector as a management response to dealing with funding uncertainty”. In the uncertainty created by the current crisis, management will use the opportunity to drive more workers into insecure jobs.

Already, teaching, student support and vital administrative tasks at universities are carried out by people whose jobs can be lost at one hour’s notice. The experience is highly stressful. For tutors like me, every semester ends with the sudden disappearance of our pay cheques followed by an anxious wait to see if we will be rehired weeks later. No sick pay, no holiday pay, but always the expectation that you will work unpaid overtime.

To push back, we need an approach that goes beyond media releases and memes. Right now, debates are taking place in union meetings around the country about how to respond to threats of restructures and job losses. At Melbourne’s RMIT, on top of the hundreds of casuals and fixed-term workers already sacked, 355 more jobs are set to be lost via voluntary redundancies. For every job that goes, those left behind suffer ever greater workloads.

The approach underpinning the Framework has proven an abject failure. In the universities where staff accepted the deal to “sacrifice” wages to save jobs, the sackings continue to mount up. For example, at Melbourne’s La Trobe, where Vice-Chancellor John Dewar was one of the key architects of the Framework and a 10 percent pay cut has already been imposed, two rounds of redundancies have already cut more than 400 jobs, with remaining staff expected to lift their productivity by 20 percent. In many ways, this is a case study in reverse that shows how important it is that we connect the issues—wages, job security and workload. When you don’t fight for one, you lose them all.

NTEU Fightback has argued that, in order to end the decades-long model of increasingly casualised university employment and to reset the debate on public funding of public education, we need the sort of extensive, mass-participation industrial action that we’ve seen from teachers’ unions in the US in recent years. Concretely, this means building vigorous resistance to job cuts, agreement concessions and underpayments. Even if we don’t win every round, such campaigns can cohere activists in a way that will be important for the future.

We also need to work actively across the divisions that weaken our efforts. This means casuals, fixed term and ongoing staff working together, professional and academic staff organising together. Serious union work is more than grand statements of intent. It takes time and effort. Fighting wage theft means defending every job, resisting increased workloads and organising in ways that build our strength for the battles to come.

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