On a fairly bleak bargaining landscape, the campaign at Sydney University has again been a bright spot for the tertiary education union. In August, NTEU members at the University of Sydney started a successful campaign of industrial action to fight management attacks.
A strike and protest at the university’s Open Day on Saturday, 26 August, was followed by a 24-hour strike on 13 September that brought the campus to a standstill. Hundreds of staff and students picketed six campus entrances. Cars were turned away, and the campus was largely deserted. Many new union members were recruited over the course of the day – staff on one picket convincing 10 people to join.
Support for the strike was high amongst staff, with few crossing the picket lines. Student support was solid, and education activists contributed to building awareness of the action through postering, lecture announcements, organising meetings and social media. The pickets concluded with a rally that drew hundreds and marched to the vice-chancellor’s office. The next day a union meeting of 200 people voted to escalate the campaign and strike for 48 hours in early October.
Since negotiations with the university started in March, this bargaining round has been characterised by the active and enthusiastic participation of hundreds of union members. Attendance at members’ meetings has been higher than at the same point during the last enterprise agreement campaign in 2013. More union members volunteered for leafleting, making calls, postering and organising meetings in their own departments. A strike fund for casual staff raised $8,000 within a week of its launch. Over the course of the campaign, around 250 people joined the union.
But the momentum of this activist-led campaign has been suffocated by the union leadership’s decision prematurely to accept an offer from the university. Despite the dynamism of the campaign at Sydney University, sections of the union leadership have always been reluctant to back staff striking or to build support among students and non-union members.
With a message built around fear, those advocating for the deal won a vote at a members’ meeting on 21 September. However, in a room of around 450 union members, about one-third voted to push on towards the next strike and for a better deal. This is an impressive figure given the scaremongering tenor of many of the speeches for the deal and the fact that those arguing to settle availed themselves of all the union’s resources to convey their arguments to members before the meeting.
The proposal that will now be put to a ballot has been touted as a victory. In fact, we have made many concessions on what union members agreed were our key claims. From July 2018, the majority of staff will receive annual wage increases of between 1.9 and 2.1 percent, a pay cut in real terms. Some gains have been made around redeployment periods for proposed redundancies, but with a major restructure looming, we have not won a clause precluding forced redundancies. Under the proposed deal, the university will also be free to advertise 120 teaching-only positions across all departments in the university. For casuals, the gains have been very limited.
Even though the enterprise agreement campaign has been wound up early, there remains much to fight for. A good number of union activists are committed to continuing to organise and argue for an activist union that isn’t afraid of a fight. We will take the lessons from this struggle with us to the next battle against the university’s restructure plans.
While many union leaders, including those from the NTEU, are now vocally joining in the ACTU’s campaign to change Australia’s anti-union strike laws, their words ring hollow when they baulk even at the chance to support legal industrial action.