Strategy is important, but solidarity matters more

Alma Torlakovic, a member of the National Tertiary Education Union at Sydney University, has written a response to this piece, which can be read here.

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On 26 September, an article by Alma Torlakovic, “Bans versus strikes at Sydney University”, was published at Red Flag. Ostensibly about the efficacy of strikes versus work bans at Sydney University, the article also contained (without input from the members involved) a critique of a five-week dispute at Swinburne University. In this article, several errors of fact were made, and the dispute was misrepresented.

What was right and what was wrong in the article? The first paragraph was right. On 11 August, Swinburne management did serve TAFE teachers with a partial work bans notice stating that it would refuse to accept their work and would refuse to pay them while they continued to uphold the bans. But the rest of the detail of the dispute is incorrect.

In March this year, a take it or leave it non-union enterprise agreement (where the “fair deal for all employees” was a 6 percent pay rise over four years) was put to teachers in vocational education (not the 3.25-3.5 plus super increases mentioned in the article). The non-union agreement was overwhelmingly rejected by over 80 percent of the workforce.

Management did want, as the author stated, “workers to accept work intensification, the removal of annual leave loading and limits on opportunities for (the huge number of) casual and fixed-term workers to convert to fixed-term or ongoing employment”. But they fought against this. That’s precisely what the five-week dispute was about. And they won.

After five weeks, Swinburne management blinked; the partial work bans notice was lifted. A new agreement has now been negotiated. Annual work plans will be strengthened; annual leave loading will remain in place; casual workers can apply for conversion after twelve months; and significantly (as we have seen management undermine these clauses), conversion cannot be denied after three years.

We did forfeit an important part of our claims: full equity between TAFE and higher education and superannuation parity for casuals still need to be won. But it’s a vastly improved position and now a leader in vocational education, with contract and ongoing TAFE teachers getting 15 percent superannuation from 2023 and 17 percent in 2024. We still have considerable work to do, but it’s a win. And it was a win only because members stood firm against the odds.

The article also claimed that with employers able to dock 100 percent of pay, “it’s then up to the union to haggle in court over what percentage of pay can be deducted—a process that can result in a major loss of campaign momentum. That is exactly what the NTEU Victorian Division and the AEU Victorian branch are now doing”. This did not happen. We didn’t go to the courts; there was no haggling, no begging. We relied instead on our industrial capacity. This response is what members wanted. The actions of Swinburne management angered them, and they wanted the fight. There was certainly no loss of “campaign momentum”; how could there be when Swinburne management assumed it would be able to starve its workers into submission?

According to the article, the lessons here are that Swinburne “shows the weakness of a union strategy focused on bans. It places the burden of the action on a minority of union members. And it gives management the opportunity to take the initiative by victimising and refusing to pay the workers imposing bans”. But management has the opportunity to victimise workers in all industrial action. Bans are not unique in this respect. The bans at Swinburne TAFE were implemented by all teachers (professional staff are covered by the higher education agreement) and upheld—as with most types of industrial action, including strikes—by those who could withstand the fight.

The article suggests: “To maintain bans, individual workers have to withstand pressure of various sorts from management pushing for the bans to be lifted”. Agreed. We all know that industrial action is hard. It is harder still at a workplace that has little by way of a financial buffer. We are not a sandstone institution like Sydney University. The pressure placed on universities such as Swinburne needs to be tailored to their specific circumstances. TAFE is funded differently from higher education, making bans extremely effective. In our case, they held up millions of dollars. This, the solidarity of delegates and members in upholding the bans, and the resultant pressures on management made the difference for us.

And yes, strikes give solidarity and strength, as the author argues; they play a central role in our industrial kit bag. But each dispute is different, each workplace is different, membership is diverse, and strategies must match the circumstances. It is wrong to portray our dispute as an exemplar of how bans are a bad industrial strategy—primarily when the facts to support such a claim are not, in fact, facts. And especially as we employed a mix-and-match strategy of strikes combined with bans. Why assume, as the author does, that this was a top-down strategy? TAFE delegates led this dispute, fought it and won it. Strikes may be suitable for Sydney University workers, just as our mix of bans and stop works were the right levers to pull with Swinburne management, but I’m not the one to judge that. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for how to win a dispute.

The final statement in the article implies that our bans were a “retreat from the sort of action that can win”, but the bans at Swinburne and the solidarity of members show this not to be the case. The dispute at Swinburne University was one of the longest in our sector and tested us all. The sacrifice demonstrated by the members and delegates to protect and improve the working lives of TAFE teachers should not be misrepresented as a failed bargaining strategy. It was anything but. More important, it is not just the strategy, but the strength and determination of members that should feature as the real lesson of this dispute.

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