Until this year, Sydney University hadn’t had a real strike since 2003. Traditionally, the NTEU has not put effort into building them. Pickets have involved a dozen members handing out leaflets at the entrances, as hordes of staff and students enter the campus. But things are changing.
Staff have responded to serious attacks on working conditions with four strikes. One of the key issues is the right of the union to represent staff. Other major attacks include slashing sick leave by 60 percent, removal of review committees for staff made redundant, casualisation and discrimination.
The first strike kicked off in the first week of semester and had immediate results. Classes were disrupted, the wi-fi was shut down, and strong pickets were set up at every gate. Management came to the table, but wanted to test us further and would not engage. Another three strikes have taken place, each increasing the level of disruption on campus, and each winning more at the bargaining table. We’re now at the point where we have won most of our demands, and have pushed back management’s agenda on almost all fronts.
The strike campaign has brought a new life and activism into the union and the campus. At every picket, staff have come up with creative slogans for placards and banners; chants and songs of solidarity are being sung; most importantly, people are feeling a sense of camaraderie as we stand collectively to fight for our rights. Students have also participated in the pickets and have brought an edge with their militancy.
However, the campaign is not without its limitations. First, because most union traditions seem non-existent in the NTEU, and sections of the membership are conservative, a number of staff have broken the strikes. The most common excuse has been that strikes inconvenience students, that they disrupt the semester and that they won’t work. The last point has been proven wrong in spades this semester.
Second, a “picket protocol” has been distributed by the union office to all staff, in effect saying that a picket is not allowed to prevent anybody from entering campus. If you had just one marble in your head, you would recognise the absurdity of this. Unfortunately, this set of rules has been used by the bosses to undermine the strike. All emails sent to staff and students in the lead-up to each strike day referred to the union’s “own” picket protocol. The guidelines also state that abusive language is not allowed to be used against anybody who crosses the picket, so use of the word “scab” is out.
Debates about calling people scabs, defending our picket line and arguing against union members who break a strike have come up and have largely been lost. This has been due mainly to the absence of an organised, left wing rank and file network.
Nevertheless, the ideas of “old school unionism” have proven effective during the strike campaign so far. Being militant on pickets, arguing against those who scab, pointing out the outrageous salaries awarded to senior management, and letting members’ creative ideas about organising flourish have reinvigorated the membership. The campaign has had victories, but needs to escalate and cause more disruption on campus.