A response to Rank and File Action at Sydney University
A response to Rank and File Action at Sydney University)

There are five main themes of my article on the industrial campaign at Sydney University, each of which is disputed by the Rank and File Action (RAFA) group in its self-justification.

1) How to characterise the results of the campaign

RAFA and the socialist group Solidarity both published pieces claiming that the proposed new enterprise agreement is a “benchmark” agreement—basically a step forward, though with a few setbacks.

I argue the opposite: that the deal is overall a substantial step backwards. I think anyone who examines the (so far pretty scant) detail of the clauses—something RAFA notably fails to do in its article—would agree with me. An explosion in EFRs that can and will undermine 40:40:20 roles, a very serious attack on the core condition of internal advertising/hiring for professional staff and a significant cut in real pay. That’s the core of the agreement.

Notably, in its latest piece, RAFA doesn’t repeat its claim that the agreement is a “benchmark” in some positive sense, or at all. If it isn’t confident to defend this important claim, with a majority on the branch committee and leadership positions, RAFA should withdraw that claim and start campaigning for people to vote no in the ballot on the deal.

Most of the gains for workers made (or at least claimed) in the proposed new EA need detailed assessment to evaluate. RAFA doesn’t do this.

2) How much “devil” is in the detail?

RAFA’s response is thin on the detail of the deal. Let’s look at one example in a bit of depth.

RAFA cherry picks eleven words from the “payment for all hours worked” clause, without engaging with the three-paragraph critique that I present, let alone the much more detailed analysis that I link to. This points out that the clause as a whole gives management the tools it needs to avoid paying for hours worked, and that it actually closes the legal ambiguity about what is “required”. This is important because, on my understanding, this ambiguity is the basis of the current casuals’ wage theft claim at the university.

RAFA then derides the “utopian demand that casuals should be automatically paid for every hour they bill the university”, which it claims “was not even in our original log of claims”. The word “automatically” isn’t in my discussion of this clause, nor in the log of claims. The claim on this issue in the original log is clear, however: “Casuals to be paid at the appropriate rate for all hours worked, including hours not contemplated by, and in excess of, the rolled up pay rate”.

It’s the crucial second half of this clause—payment for the many, many hours that all casuals work beyond the couple of hours of preparation and consultation around a tutorial, for instance, which is the important part. Far from being utopian, this is pretty much a direct quote from the current Melbourne University enterprise agreement (clause, which states that “additional hours not contemplated by, and in excess of, the derived rate will be paid at the Casual hourly rate ...”.

I’m no expert on the ins and outs of casuals organising at Melbourne University, and it wasn’t the subject of my article. But my understanding is that, combined with a very effective campaign of organising and enforcement of several other clauses, is one reason why Melbourne casuals have been more successful than anywhere else in the country in winning back payment for wage theft—$45 million and counting, at last report.

I’m not pretending that simply rolling this clause out across every campus would solve every problem. Management has wised up at Melbourne University, as at many other places. My understanding is that it’s now common to direct teaching staff to follow a procedure to let management know when the tiny allocation of hours for particular tasks may be breached, so management can direct staff not to work outside this impossibly small allocation.

This practice, introduced by management as a protection against wage theft claims, is what is proposed to be enshrined in the new Sydney University EA. As I note in my article, whether introduced by management as a policy or proclaimed as a “union win” in an enterprise agreement, the effect is the same: “Casuals will be left with the same dilemma as now: do the job they want to do (and which students deserve) on unpaid overtime, or do the rushed, slipshod job that management will pay for, and face the possibility of not being re-employed”.

Avoiding this through an EA clause would require careful thought. There are a variety of other ways to attack this problem (much higher piece rates, or a higher loading, for instance), as NTEU Fightback has noted. No-one is saying that they’ve found the holy grail. But to write off an existing clause that has proved to be of some worth as “utopian” is not a serious approach.

How much do clauses matter?

There seems to be a line of thinking in some circles that the exact wording of the clauses doesn’t matter. Maybe anyone who thinks this should get in a time machine and tell Jack Mundey and his fellow builders labourers not to worry about award clauses governing margins for skill, working in mud, and seats on dunnies.

Of course, the great thing about the Builders Labourers’ Federation is that they remind us that there’s a lot more to life than the words of a clause. But if a union is incapable of winning a clause that actually does what it’s meant to do, it’s not likely to be able to win much else.

A group of activists who gloss over the wording of clauses and how they will be implemented is setting itself up for disappointment—and selling false hope to anyone it influences. Activists who think the wording of the clauses that have a huge impact on our working lives is unimportant are more dilettante than militant, in my view.

On reporting

If anyone tries to reconstruct what is in the deal by wading back through the regular update emails sent to Sydney University members, they will have a very hard time. I tried doing this in the weeks before the industrial campaign was suspended. To answer a simple question such as “Is the claim for equal super for casuals (17 percent) still current, or has it been dropped?” required digging through thousands of words of reports.

It’s not rocket science to do better than this, and to give union members the tools needed to analyse their terms of employment as negotiations progress. A quick web search turns up the tentative agreement that 25,000 striking Chicago Teachers Union delegates voted on in 2019. It’s every word of nearly every clause, with clarity about what is still to be negotiated.

To be clear: this detailed document was what hundreds of delegates voted on, after consultation with their members, while still on an open-ended strike, in order to suspend the strike. This repeats a process that the Chicago Teachers Union followed in their path-breaking 2012 strike. (See page 155 of part two of this very useful history of the CTU—part one is here). Reporting from the Los Angeles teachers’ union from its recent open-ended strike is also comprehensive, consisting of regular reports on where each claim is up to.

This should be normal practice. One important way that rank-and-file workers are denied democracy is by keeping the wording of clauses in the dark. Jane McAlevey is one among many serious organisers who take the opposite approach. RAFA doesn’t seem to agree—or, at least, doesn’t seem to think it’s important to match the obviously superior practice of unions like the Los Angeles and Chicago teachers.

3) How to characterise the course of the campaign

The most important point I draw from the Sydney University campaign is that nine days of industrial action over the course of a year were insufficient and allowed the momentum of the campaign to be lost.

You don’t have to read much between the lines to see—despite a lot of huffing and puffing—that RAFA concedes that it advocated a slower pace of strikes than Alma and the Fightback team. RAFA justifies its perspective on the basis of what the members would support, without reference to any evidence. But there’s no acknowledgement of the fact that a campaign lacking momentum will also find it hard to gather support.

“[W]e’d all like to see bigger, more impactful strikes than we currently do in the NTEU ...”, RAFA states. “USyd members had ample opportunities during votes at members’ meetings to endorse Fightback’s vision for longer-lasting industrial action had they been prepared to. They consistently declined to do so.”

This presents a misleading picture. The industrial campaign started with a vigorous debate about whether to support a Fightback motion for a 48-hour strike, or some lesser industrial action. NTEU members voted overwhelmingly to support the 48-hour strike.

This wasn’t a one-off: Fightback’s consistent arguments for more industrial action shaped the industrial campaign for the better in all sorts of ways, right up to the end. A debate late in the industrial campaign about whether to have a strike during census week (the position of Fightback, because the strike would be more disruptive) or a week later (backed by RAFA) resulted in a clear majority vote for the earlier date proposed by Fightback.

It’s true that RAFA successfully blocked with the right to stop an escalation of strikes in semester two 2022. But it’s quite possible that members would have endorsed an escalation if RAFA had given a lead and argued for more strikes at this point, rather than organising with the right to prevent this from happening.

If RAFA had wanted “bigger, more impactful strikes”, this was a key time to argue for them. Instead, its members blocked with the right and let any momentum fade. In a meeting in November 2022, RAFA shut down a debate on a Fightback motion to start semester one of 2023 with a three-day strike. Instead, RAFA poured energy into a bans strategy that went exactly nowhere.

Having conceded in its article that RAFA supported a slower pace of strikes than Fightback, RAFA then (drumroll, please) blames Alma and team for the fact there were no indefinite strikes.

Organising an effective open-ended strike usually takes a lot of large-scale organising in advance. The string of such strikes at US universities over the past couple of years shows this is possible in higher education. We should all be studying the 48,000-strong strike at University of California, which won a 50 percent wage rise for the lowest paid over eighteen months.

To get from here to there will take many steps. One of those steps is to tell the truth rather than hail a concessionary agreement as a “benchmark” in any positive sense. Another is to argue for strikes with a length and frequency that gain momentum rather than squandering it. Another is to release the clauses so workers can judge for themselves what their working conditions will be.

All of these measures are useful preparatory work for the sort of step change in the level of industrial action needed to hang on to key conditions and solve apparently intractable problems of overwork, casualisation and falling real wages.

RAFA also doesn’t dispute the fact that the motion it supported on academic workload in March 2022 opened the door for the explosion of EFRs found in the proposed deal. I say this was an important (and negative) turning point. RAFA declines to comment.

4) The role of Fightback

In terms of word count, RAFA really doesn’t engage much on the substance of the deal or the conduct of the industrial campaign. The bulk of the article is dedicated to the main game—disparaging Fightback, with a bit of pompously phrased rubbishing of me along the way.

I linked to a detailed article about how RAFA blocked with the right to slow down strikes in 2022. I called this “organising against escalation”. I think that’s a fair comment. RAFA actually didn’t deny the content of this particular article (focusing on 2023 instead). But regardless, they think my phrasing shows “a level of outright fantasy” that should “permanently discredit” me as a “serious commentator on union affairs”.

Anytime RAFA wants to engage on the substantive issues, the record shows that Fightback pushed for more strikes, more often, than RAFA; that Fightback is the only group to have made clauses and serious analysis available—from the start of this bargaining round and at Sydney Uni in the past few weeks; that Fightback is arguing for people to vote No, because a concessionary deal should be opposed, and because there is insufficient detail available to properly assess the deal voted on at the meeting that decided to suspend the industrial campaign.

I think all this stands to the credit of Fightback.

5) What to do now

I say that the kinds of sporadic strikes that have succeeded in winning and retaining conditions in the past are no longer sufficient. The open-ended strikes in higher education in the US in the past two years, backed by large scale, preparatory organising, are the way to go. RAFA doesn’t comment.

RAFA remains chained to its “benchmark” agreement; I’m glad to see Fightback continuing to oppose it.

Since this article was published there has been a further exchange with RAFA, which you can read here.

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