The biggest mobilisation of National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members for decades is taking place, and it’s against efforts by the government, university bosses and, shamefully, leaders of our own union to undermine hard-won pay rates, hours entitlements and other conditions.

Universities are now run as profit-making corporations, even though they perform vital functions. Without the education universities provide, vast numbers of jobs that produce our society’s wealth could not be filled. University research is crucial for scientific and technological advancement, even if its potential is never realised under capitalism, as the state and capitalists subordinate it to generating profit.

The fall in revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a crisis in university finances. The sector could lose up to $19 billion over the next three years, primarily due to a sharp drop in international student enrolments.

This crisis didn’t come out of the blue. University workers have been under pressure since Labor’s introduction of student fees in 1989. Since then, both Labor and Coalition governments have slashed federal funding per student. Today, students bear most of the funding burden, graduating from their “degree factories” with large debts hanging over them. Meanwhile, vice-chancellors have expanded revenue by recruiting hundreds of thousands of overseas students who pay high up-front fees.

Seeking to maximise profits and minimise costs, university bosses have increasingly looked to casual and contract workers. Casual tutors, clerical and library workers have low pay, no job security, and no sick and holiday leave entitlements. They frequently work unpaid overtime. Less than half of universities’ “full-time equivalent” workers have secure ongoing positions and casual staff do more than half of all teaching.

The immediate response to the current crisis by Australian vice-chancellors, who earn, on average, an annual salary of close to $1 million, has been to throw casuals onto the scrap heap. There have been widespread layoffs. Tens of thousands of jobs are on the line. Meanwhile, the shift to working from home has dramatically increased the workloads of most university staff.

The government has refused to provide more than token amounts in assistance to the sector. It has made sure university workers are ineligible for the JobKeeper scheme. The government sees an opportunity to continue the process of eroding the relatively good conditions enjoyed by an important public sector workforce, and they hope it will be an example that will spread. They want the costs of this crisis to be paid out of the wages and conditions of workers.

University bosses want to take an axe to rules about wage rates, hours and other legally enforceable conditions in enterprise agreements. Some also have bizarre senses of humour. While mounting attacks on their employees’ working conditions, vice chancellors are asking them for donations. In an email to staff at La Trobe university in Melbourne, vice-chancellor John Dewar asked for voluntary contributions to help cover the revenue shortfall, but also noted that, “We cannot guarantee these measures will be enough to prevent stand down or even forced redundancies”.

The top officials of the NTEU have prioritised having a seat at the table in negotiations above defending their members’ wages and conditions. To vice chancellors, they have signalled a willingness to see significant cuts in members’ hours of work and pay, along with forced use of leave entitlements and deferral of agreed pay rises and automatic pay scale advancement.

NTEU officials argue this will save jobs. But, as Dewar wrote, there are no guarantees that will be the case. Thousands of casuals have already lost their jobs and vice chancellors are not going to give up their right to sack. It’s more likely they will take what the officials have offered on a platter and proceed with further lay-offs, redundancies and stand-downs. Concessions granted, especially without a fight, will be extremely hard to restore.

In the face of the collaborationist approach of the NTEU leadership, there has been an important rank and file revolt. We don’t know much about the officials’ negotiations with the vice chancellors because they have not been reported to members. But there is widespread support for fighting against the attacks on our pay and conditions and resetting the union’s stance. A thousand members have signed an open protest letter.

On the campuses where the union is best organised and has most members (the University of Sydney, RMIT, and the University of Melbourne), large majorities have voted against the officials’ approach. The first such vote, at the University of Sydney, was carried 117 to 2. Meetings of members at four other universities and casuals networks at five have voted for similar motions.

Union activists have set up a Facebook page to keep members informed and help coordinate the fight against concessions. They have also issued a leaflet explaining the situation, then, after an unconstitutional meeting of the union’s national councillors, a follow up leaflet, and a critical assessment of what we know about the officials’ proposals. Most importantly, through meetings and individual discussions we have been building workplace networks of activists, which are crucial foundations for union strength now and in the future.

This crisis has also had a major impact on students. The universities’ focus on profit and continuing attacks on workers’ conditions have increased workloads and student-staff ratios. The quality of university education has declined dramatically as a result. In response, students are organising their own resistance during the pandemic and showing solidarity with staff. Students Organising Resistance held an online rally on 24 April to demand support for international students, free education, and that university workers and students should not pay for the crisis. They are now building for a national day of action on 22 May.

University workers are not only fighting for their own jobs, pay and conditions, they are providing a lead for others not content to let bosses and governments impose their will on us without a fight.