Fighting laboratory evictions at Sydney Uni

A campaign has been brewing within the University of Sydney’s School of Anatomy and Physiology against the forced evictions of researchers from the Anderson Stuart wet labs. 

Staff learnt of the news via an email from Robyn Ward, dean of the newly amalgamated Faculty of Health and Medicine, on 14 December, one week before the university’s Christmas shutdown. The email cited health and safety risks as reason to close the labs by mid-2019, but management have refused to make public the detail of the health and safety reports, despite repeated requests. An email sent to staff by acting vice-chancellor Stephen Garton, in which he explains the labs were to be shut down due to their being “too costly to maintain”, makes no mention of the alleged health and safety risks.

The grassroots campaign by National Tertiary Education Union members and affected staff and students has inspired both solidarity and creativity. The department is well unionised, and as soon as news of the eviction spread, “Hands off Anderson Stuart” posters started appearing and a “Humans of Anderson Stuart” Facebook page attracted 1,000 likes within two weeks of being launched.

Stories on the page give a feel for the impact on staff and students, one explaining, “The move has already completely changed my life … My lab took years to establish and my supervisor went through extensive consultations with Taronga Zoo, Marine and Fisheries dept and marine experts to set up the ecosystems and reproductive cycles for the specialised work. I really wanted to study the origins of life but there is no way these aquariums would survive a spontaneous move”.

Four temporary locations for the labs have been proposed, but they are a 45-minute walk from the current location. This would not only eat into research and teaching time, but would create a barrier to invaluable collaboration among researchers.

The eviction is happening during a tumultuous time for the faculty. It is currently undergoing a restructure that involves a number of redundancies. Management have tried to intimidate staff by calling them into meetings about the eviction with three management representatives present and without informing them about their right to union representation. Those who objected were told the decision has already been made to shut the labs and there was no point asking further questions. 

The campaign is escalating. A motion of no confidence in the faculty management, signed by 185 affected staff members, was delivered on 8 February. It calls out the faculty for breach of health and safety legislation and the enterprise bargaining agreement clause that requires consultation before any relocation of work units. The union has lodged a dispute on the matter.