The rank and file uprising in Australia's higher education union
The rank and file uprising in Australia's higher education union
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There is a rising rank-and-file rebellion in one of Australia’s major unions, the National Tertiary Education Union. It’s the most significant revolt in decades. The upheaval comes in response to the union leadership’s proposal to adopt a “framework” agreement with universities that would cut wages and conditions in exchange for a seat at the table for union officials. This makes it important to all workers whose union officials have tried to cut similar deals with the bosses, from the Australian Council of Trade Unions down.

Scenes of spontaneous revolt against union officials’ attempts to stifle debate are galvanising new activists across the country. At RMIT University, the branch experienced its own Spartacus moment. A meeting on 15 May maxed out its Zoom capacity of 400, the largest branch meeting in memory. After a lengthy defence of the union’s strategy from an official and a much shorter criticism from NTEU Fightback activist Liam Ward, union officials tried to stop a vote with bureaucratic arguments. With the poll function unavailable and members sick of being talked at for so long, and sick of their voices being ignored by the union, they suddenly began to unmute themselves to vote, declaring “I support Liam” one after the other. Eight minutes of hundreds of individual members voting in this way decided the matter and sent a clear message to the union leaders present.

More than 1,300 university workers have signed a “No Cuts – No Concessions” statement and vote No pledge. The so-called National Jobs Protection Framework give universities that sign up the ability to cut wages by up to 15 percent as a trade-off for vague promises to use the cost savings to save some jobs. This will be done through variations to local enterprise agreements, which will weaken the ability of activists to fight, not least because they will be fighting against cuts that their union is helping to implement.

After a month of negotiations, union members were finally informed of the deal’s substance in mid-April. Starting with a few dozen activists, the NTEU Fightback group has now connected networks on campuses across Australia, including many where existing activists had no contact before. The local area and campus “vote No” meetings have attracted people who rarely come to union meetings and activated many who attended only passively in the past.

Hundreds of members have been drawn to branch meetings, which have been scenes of furious discussion and debate – when it’s been allowed by the officials. Dozens of local area meetings have taken place across campuses to discuss the implications of the framework and its political implications for the sector. With the whole union apparatus against the No campaign, rank-and-file members have had to sit down with a list of names, map their campus and figure out how to win the No vote, how to shore up the waverers and how to refute the officials’ lie that cuts in wages or conditions will save jobs.

For activists in the NTEU Fightback group, many of whom have been unionists for 10 or more years, this is a tremendous opportunity to play a role in every area of organising. A look at mass members’ meetings at three of the union’s largest branches gives a glimpse of this revolt.

Sydney University, long considered the most activist and independent of the branches of the NTEU, kicked off the revolt against the framework with a members’ meeting on 9 April that voted 117 to two to reject the plan, which was at that stage in its infancy. The motion included a censure of the NTEU national executive.

A second, larger, members’ meeting on 22 April carried a “no concessions/vote No” motion 145 to 45, even after the division secretary spoke to defend the framework. The scale of the opposition at the Sydney University meetings surprised everyone. It became a signal for NTEU activists across the country that there could be significant opposition to build on.

A similar groundswell was evident at a Melbourne University members’ meeting on 1 May. Despite indications from workmates and fellow delegates that there was anger at the proposed deal, NTEU Fightback activists were unsure how widespread that feeling was. The first indication came when an amendment to the leadership motion was put to remove references to specific concessions. That amendment was carried, 69 percent voting in favour. Then a motion to allow national president Alison Barnes to address the meeting to defend the national executive’s proposal was overwhelmingly rejected. The strength of opposition was shown again when, despite being made more appealing by the amendment, the leadership motion supporting a deal was still voted down.

The counterposed motion called for a serious campaign to protect all jobs and conditions and to vote against EA variations that diminished those. It was carried 79 percent for, 12 percent against, a crushing majority.

Large members’ meetings at the University of New England, University of Technology Sydney, Western Sydney University and the University of New South Wales, as well as casuals’ networks at universities across the country, have now also voted against the framework. The list may grow if members at other universities succeed in their attempts to force local union branch leaders to hold genuinely democratic meetings.

A meeting of the Victoria University branch of the NTEU votes against the proposed deal. PHOTO: Supplied
A meeting of the Victoria University branch of the NTEU votes against the proposed deal. PHOTO: Supplied

The solid majorities in these members’ meetings have come about because of the detailed groundwork undertaken by NTEU Fightback activists and others. Local area meetings, many in faculties and divisions that have not held union meetings in decades, have allowed members to analyse the framework and see the gaps and the flaws in the strategy it represents.

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Some union leaders are parroting the Institute of Public Affairs talking point that university workers are privileged and should be ashamed to protect their wages and conditions. But the sector looks a lot like many others. Decades of federal government underfunding and corporatisation of management have resulted in unsustainable increases in workloads and stress, massive casualisation (it is estimated that more than half of university workers are on casual contracts), and constant restructures and redundancies that make the ideal of job security a joke even for those on continuing contracts. And this was all in the supposedly good times.

Thousands of members across the country can see the historic implications of the campaign. It is not just about what happens in the university sector; it is about how unions should respond in a crisis. Should unions be part of committees that oversee cuts, or should they be rebuilding union power by organising members in political and industrial campaigns to fight the cuts? What counts in a union – the posturing of the officials or the organisation of the rank and file?

Many university workers no longer believe that university managers have the same interests as them. Indeed, they believe that administrations will use any opportunity they can to screw us harder.

Apparently, the union leadership doesn’t understand that university staff don’t trust the bosses to have their best interests at heart. They don’t understand that their members can’t afford wage cuts of hundreds of dollars a fortnight. That is why the NTEU officials are having such a hard time selling their deal.

But it is also because NTEU Fightback has tried to build on every flicker of resistance across the country. This is not just some exercise in “getting the vote out”. To convince members to vote No requires an activist orientation in word and deed. The “vote No” campaign builds strength on the ground. Members are talking through important issues such as the role of unions in society, becoming familiar with their legal rights, figuring out how to organise meetings and talk to workmates about union issues. This is the kind of invaluable training that is a necessary step if we are ever to revive union strength. Unfortunately, the potential of this kind of momentum is being ignored by the official structures of the union in favour of their pay cut deal.

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Facing unprecedented opposition from members, the NTEU leadership has resorted to undemocratic measures that would make a Stalinist blush. At meetings around the country, members have been prevented from putting motions or amendments, calling for debates or even speaking. The chat function in Zoom has been disabled and all sorts of spurious bureaucratic arguments used to stop members from doing what should be a basic right for a union member – talking about and voting on industrial strategy in their branch.

The national leadership has instructed its paid staff to block the distribution of vote No material and told branch presidents to clamp down on dissent. The national executive uses the argument that because they and two meetings of national councillors have voted for the framework it is now official union policy and therefore must be abided by. There have even been claims that organising against this “official union policy” is akin to scabbing!

But it is bizarre and undemocratic nonsense to insist that members do not have a right to discuss and distribute vote No material when they are all meant to be voting on it shortly! How can the leadership possibly claim that it is a democratic vote when they are using their hold on the machinery of the union to suppress discussion in the lead-up to it? Genuinely democratic votes involve informed discussion and debate beforehand. These facetious arguments are simply cover for a leadership unable to win the argument in an open contest.

It is vitally important that all activists who oppose the framework should campaign to get the highest No vote possible. Despite widespread scepticism about the framework, it may well be voted up. There are plenty of branches that the union has left to become disengaged, where members feel more the weight of university and union admonitions.

It is also important to campaign on campuses that might not be a part of the framework. While few vice-chancellors have signed up, the negotiations have given a green light to many of them to implement immediate attacks, in particular against those employed on casual or fixed-term contracts. The NTEU officials going cap in hand to the employers to offer cuts to wages and conditions has only encouraged many VCs to dispense with the framework and go after even more severe attacks. A strong No vote is a signal to both VCs and the union that members are strongly opposed to cuts to their existing wages and conditions, and that they do not think university staff should be made to pay for the crisis.

The leadership tried to use the recent National Day of Action for proper federal government funding of the sector to divert attention from their reprehensible strategy and conduct. On social media, the union account harassed members who asked questions about the framework, telling them to go to the NDA instead. On the same day as the NDA, a furore erupted in the La Trobe branch when the president refused to allow any discussion or debate at a members’ meeting. The large and vibrant campaign against the framework on that campus has now organised its own alternative branch meeting in despair at the despotism of the local branch leadership.

The vote matters. It is a debate over the soul and strategy of the union. Are these officials going to be allowed to sell the wages and conditions of members for a seat at the table? Are they going to be allowed to trample over basic democratic rights that members believe they have? While it is necessary that pressure be brought to bear on federal governments to properly fund the sector, there is a very bitter, very real, contest now taking place about the nature of the union.

The leadership is trying to shut its eyes and pretend that there is no rank-and-file revolt going on. Whether that revolt wins the vote or not, it has the potential to be the basis for a network of members who have learned valuable lessons about how to be an activist. And they won’t forget the role of the current union leadership.

The fight back does not end with a No vote in the national ballot. But it is a crucial first step in establishing resistance to the idea that workers should pay for the crisis. And through the process of organising to reject the deal, members can feel empowered to organise locally. We need to galvanise the largest possible “No” vote precisely because it will make the union stronger for the fights to come.

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