“Management across the Illawarra have made a huge mistake because Wollongong is a union town!” These words from Mark Rogers, a casual academic at the University of Wollongong, summed up the sentiment of 23 October in Wollongong. 

For the first time in 14 years, professional and academic staff at Wollongong University took 24-hour strike action. This followed on from a two-hour stop work two weeks earlier. 

The strikes are in response to negotiations for a new enterprise bargaining agreement dragging on for over nine months. 

Staff are demanding secure work and fair pay. Rogers told Red Flag, “The extraordinary level of casual employment at this university is a disgrace, one of the worst in the state. Over 70 percent of employees are casual or on insecure contracts”. This is a higher casualisation rate than McDonalds, and well above the 43.8 percent average for Australian universities. 

Meanwhile, down the road on the same day, steelworkers at Bluescope walked off work for a four-hour strike. This is an important step forward because this action was the first since workers agreed to a four-year pay freeze and cuts to their conditions in order to save the steelworks industry. 

Since then, Bluescope has returned to the black, recording a $354 million profit last year. Despite this, Bluescope is refusing to restore the pay and conditions workers sacrificed. As Red Flag argued at the time they would, the bosses have used the deal to permanently drive down conditions. 

Striking university and steel workers joined with hundreds of others from more than a dozen unions for a Change the Rules rally in Crown Street Mall, where speaker after speaker told their tale of fighting against corporate greed. 

A representative from the Independent Education Union explained that the NSW state Liberal government cut 138 of 150 educators in prisons. The rally also heard from crane drivers who have been on indefinite strike against Boom Logistics, while unionists from the Nurses Association and the NSW Teachers Federation spoke of the chronic underfunding of the health care and public education systems. 

The day was a big step for Wollongong, with the two biggest workplaces in the city on strike. However, as Maki Danalis, CFMMEU organiser, told Red Flag, “Capital has become more aggressive, and on the other hand labour and its organisations have become very accommodating to the system”. 

As in other Change the Rules rallies around the country, the emphasis from the front was on getting the Labor Party elected. But it will take more than this to change the rules in favour of workers. 

The strikes by the steelworkers and university staff are an important demonstration of the muscle workers will need to flex to win real improvements in living standards, regardless of who’s in government.