A response to Julie Kimber

This piece is a response to National Tertiary Education Union Swinburne Branch President Julie Kimber, whose article can be read here.

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Thanks to Julie Kimber for her reply to my original article. I want to acknowledge the factual errors she points out. Unfortunately, I reproduced an error that was first published in the Age regarding the wage claim. And I should have checked at the time of publication whether the union did end up going to court, as was suggested in an earlier press release from our union.

Despite what Julie suggests, at my request an NTEU comrade in Melbourne did speak to members at Swinburne, who did not wish to be named or quoted. They are not to blame for the errors of fact, of course. 

However, the overall purpose of the article, “Bans versus strikes at Sydney University”, was not to tell the story of the Swinburne dispute but, as the title suggests, to contribute to a debate about strikes versus bans in the context of the Sydney University bargaining dispute. 

My reason for raising the Swinburne example was to make the point about how Australia’s draconian anti-union laws (the current iteration deriving largely from the last Labor government’s Fair Work Act) allow managers to deduct wages in full in response even to very limited work bans. That is, when workers carry out only a portion of their assigned duties, employers can, as they did at Swinburne, refuse to accept any work from them and refuse to pay them for any work performed. 

The most recent example of this in the university sector was at James Cook University in late October. Workers there have been threatened with a lockout for implementing bans. Even something as small as showing a PowerPoint slide to students explaining why union members are taking industrial action has been met with this draconian response. As JCU NTEU president Jonathan Strauss pointed out, “if management is going to dock our pay, we may as well strike”.

This is not the first time that the weakness of bans in the context of current anti-union laws has been shown in the NTEU. In November 2010, after the teaching year had ended, union members at UNSW voted for an indefinite ban on processing student results. This was the second time staff had placed bans on the transmission of results that year. After 70 members were stood down without pay in July 2010, NTEU members agreed to lift the ban on the understanding that management would negotiate on fixed-term employment. Once the bans were lifted, management again refused to negotiate. 

The end of year exam-results bans involved 34 members with large courses. Stood-down members were paid strike pay from the union’s defence fund for seven weeks, at which point the national executive of the union announced that financial support would be withdrawn, and the bans were lifted. Once again, when the exam results were processed, management refused to negotiate.

This is just one example of the limitations of work bans as a strategy.

As I pointed out in the original article, work bans can lead to victimisation of individuals, especially casual staff who the university can simply cease giving work to. Additionally, most bans can be undertaken only by a minority (and often a tiny minority) of union members. 

By contrast, strike action necessarily involves more people, both academic and professional staff. It also allows students to show solidarity with staff by standing with us on picket lines. 

Strike action is the most effective weapon our side has. It has the potential to disrupt business as usual in every department, even in places with lower union density, precisely because it has an impact on the whole campus. A strike allows us to set up a picket line—a symbolic and physical reminder that union members are taking a stand, and that fellow workers must not cross.

By contrast, a work ban is done as an atomised individual, behind screens and behind closed doors. If our concern is to rebuild fighting unionism, the broadest possible active involvement of members and the greatest possible damage to the employer should be our key concerns.

The claim that bans yield media publicity and damage the university’s reputation applies just as much, if not more, to strike action. You need only look at media coverage of the six days of strike action already taken at Sydney University this year, as well as prior campaigns. 

And yet the university management remains intransigent. This is the context for a continuing debate in the Sydney University NTEU branch about how to respond. 

I stand by what I wrote in the original article, that “a bans strategy doesn’t represent an escalation, or a smarter strategy, but a retreat from the sort of action that can win”. If existing strike action has not moved management, we need to escalate the industrial pressure.

We now face a period of preparation for action in 2023 in which the battle over the meaning of the word “escalation” will be key. The cost-of-living crisis continues, and we must fight for a pay rise above inflation, which has just hit 7.3 percent. The way to win is to increase pressure and keep the momentum. That means having longer and more frequent strikes.

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