Sydney University staff begin industrial campaign
Sydney University staff begin industrial campaign
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A 350-strong members’ meeting of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) at the University of Sydney has voted to take strike action twice in the next month, kicking off our industrial campaign with a 48-hour strike on 11 and 12 May. This follows two years of savage attacks on university workers.

The escalation was provoked by a range of attacks on staff, which intensified during the pandemic. Management has tried to change the current workload arrangements for academics, which are based on a 40-40-20 percent split between teaching, research and administrative responsibilities. Without this provision, teaching workloads would increase for most academics, eating into research time. That would add to the unpaid overtime that is rife throughout the industry.

Professional workers in administration and campus services are also under attack. Management is trying to scrap the requirement that new professional jobs must first be advertised internally. Doing so would allow the university to hire external staff, who are often used to lower wages and conditions and are less likely to be union members. The union is also fighting for a “no forced redundancies” clause, for work-from-home rights, for manageable workloads and for protections against excessive or unpaid overtime. Hundreds of members in several working groups helped come up with our list of demands.

We are also fighting for a pay rise after two years of increased workloads and mass job losses. With the cost of living now rising dramatically, we need a pay rise above inflation. The rank-and-file university staff group of which I am a part, NTEU Fightback, issued a national open letter calling for the sector-wide pay claim to be increased to the rate of inflation, plus at least 1 percent a year. The union leaders have asked only for a 15 percent rise over three and a half years. That means we could end up with a real wage cut; inflation has already reached 5.1 percent and could rise further in the coming months.

The claims also reflect our commitment to social justice. We have included employment targets for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, who are underrepresented in the university sector—the current representation of First Nations people in the Sydney University workforce is barely 1 percent. The second strike will fall on the eve of National Reconciliation Week. We are also asking management to improve working conditions for staff living with a disability and have included demands to support transgender staff with annual transition leave.

Starting the campaign with a 48-hour strike sends a strong message that we are ready for a serious fight—this will be the first time in the sector that an industrial campaign has started with two consecutive days of action. The follow-up strike on 24 May is also significant; we are making it clear that we will keep fighting until our demands are met. If management doesn’t relent, it can expect more of the same after the Winter break.

The Sydney University branch sets the pace for rest of the NTEU and the sector, in terms of both militancy and, as a result, pay and conditions. Strikes in 2013 and 2017 shut down the campus, with picket lines managing to turn away countless staff, students and delivery drivers. Through these actions we have been able to resist many of the attacks that university bosses have pushed through elsewhere.

It took a lot of discussion and argument within the union to get us to this point. NTEU Fightback has argued from the start for an ambitious list of demands and strike action as our key weapon. We made these arguments in many workplaces for months. The vote for the strikes came after a long debate on the NTEU’s branch committee about what kind of industrial campaign strategy can win. Such debates are important.

The first argument was about which forms of industrial action should be on the ballot. More conservative members argued for more symbolic actions, such as administrative bans, in an attempt to downplay the importance of strike action. 

Against this, we argued that strikes are the most effective way of disrupting the university. Also, members can participate in strike action collectively, which is essential for developing a militant union culture on campus. We want to build on the actions of 2013 and 2017, not waste time with ineffective bans.

Participation in the industrial action ballot was very high. Of the 80 percent of members who voted, 93 percent supported 24-hour strikes, more than the level of support for administrative bans. Almost 70 percent even supported indefinite strikes. There was also an argument about how the campaign of industrial action should start. We argued to begin with a 48-hour strike, eventually winning the vote by a large margin at the members meeting.

Recent strike action by teachers, nurses, paramedics and transport workers shows there is an appetite for a fight in New South Wales. Workers make society run, and we will not passively accept the attacks on our wages and conditions from the government and the bosses.

As we head towards the strike on 11 and 12 May, we have mobilised activists to help coordinate picket lines at the university’s entrances and organised rallies on the strike days to build solidarity. A branch strike fund has already raised several thousand dollars. We have also set up a strike playlist and are encouraging people to add their favourite union or protest songs to it.

Activists from the student union’s Education Action Group have helped spread the word among students, passing motions of support in dozens of lectures and tutorials, plastering the campus with posters and leafleting daily. 

We have spent the last few weeks talking to hundreds of staff members about the importance of striking, participating in the pickets and arguing with their colleagues to join the campaign and the union. We have strong student support at Sydney University and are calling on students and staff from other universities and workplaces to join us on the picket lines, starting at 7am on Wednesday 11 and Thursday 12 May.

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