How socialists should respond to union sell-outs
How socialists should respond to union sell-outs

An enormous rank and file revolt has gripped the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). The fight is in response to the attempt by the national leadership of the NTEU to push through a misnamed “job protection framework” (JPF) agreement with university management that would sacrifice staff wages and conditions in return for union officials getting a say in restructuring higher education. This is a massive sell-out by the leadership of the NTEU and has provoked the biggest rank and file backlash in the Australian trade union movement for decades.

This framework is now in tatters as union activists across the country fought tooth and nail against the national leadership of the NTEU. The officials of the union pulled out every trick in the book to try and stifle discussion of the framework. Despite this NTEU members gathered in meetings across the country to reject the approach of the union leaders. Even before the details of the framework became available, members' meetings at Sydney University, Melbourne Uni and RMIT voted against the official approach of offering concessions to management. Once the framework became available, opposition increased, with branch meetings at at least a dozen campuses and three branch committees voting to oppose the framework, and casuals networks and other activist bodies passing similar motions.

Hundreds of union members have been mobilised to argue with their fellow workers about opposing the officials’ sell-out, to attend “vote no” organising meetings and to demand the right to speak against the framework at branch meetings. The vote no campaign put its case to over 5000 people across the country, in branch meetings, workplace meetings and campaign meetings. Outside of strike action, it is the most active the union’s membership has ever been.

Many socialist activists in the NTEU have thrown themselves into this struggle. The NTEU Fightback campaign has its origins in the action of Sydney University professional staff member, Alma Torlakovic, a member of Socialist Alternative, who with the backing of other left wing union activists moved the initial motion condemning the NTEU officials’ approach. Building on this, Alma has organised dozens of staff meetings across different faculties to build support for a no vote. Socialist Alternative members across the country have attempted to replicate these initiatives to the degree possible on their campuses, and where we do not have a presence have backed the efforts of others to do so. Without such rank and file mobilisation, the officials would not have been defeated. More than that, this mobilisation has laid the groundwork for resistance to the attacks from VCs that are already coming.

The key argument in the campaign was to oppose the politics of class collaboration embodied in the JPF. Not as an abstraction, but because the idea that sitting down with the vice chancellors to offer up wage cuts and loss of conditions is the best way to resist proposed job losses is a dead-end. Far from securing workers’ jobs, the outcome of these kinds of deals is always to encourage the bosses to demand even more sacrifices while disarming the union. The role of socialists in this situation is to help lead and organise the rank and file to stand on their own feet and defend themselves. When trade union officials work with bosses to attack their own members, that means taking on the officials, too.

This strategy has, however, met with opposition from other socialists in the union. First and foremost are those socialists who occupy full time official positions in the union and who have been enthusiastic champions of the JPF. They include Damien Cahill, Assistant Secretary of the New South Wales Division of the NTEU, the NTEU NSW State Secretary Michael Thomson, and Alison Barnes, the National President of the NTEU.  Compared to other NTEU officials, their personal histories and/or writings seem to mark them out as leftists but their practice today is very different.

In his youth Cahill was the editor of the student newspaper at the University of Wollongong and used the paper to promote a revival of student protest and activism. As an academic Cahill has spent years writing and researching neoliberalism: his staff biography on the University of Sydney website states that he “is particularly interested in the relationship between neoliberal theory and practice, reasons for the durability of neoliberalism, and the ways it is being re-shaped by crisis”. However, faced by the implementation of neoliberalism in the universities, Cahill has only waved it through, in the form of the JPF.

Thomson is a former member of the socialist group Solidarity. However, in recent years he has worked with the national leadership of the NTEU to stifle rank and file activity in the union. For example, most recently he played a key role in selling out staff at the University of New England over their latest enterprise agreement in the teeth of opposition from rank and file members and the elected branch committee.

Barnes was in the 1990s a member of the International Socialist Organisation. Today, however, she has been campaigning across the country and throughout the national media for the framework deal with the university bosses, of which she was the key architect. Any left credentials Barnes might have are now put to use to more effectively sell the deal, which she characterised as an intervention by the union “to put income security and fairness at the centre of a national response” to covid-19. No mention in any of her public pronouncements that the deal included wage cuts of up to 15 percent.

As this indicates, the response of these leftists to the current university crisis has been indistinguishable from the rest of the union leadership. They have all argued that making concessions to the VCs is the only way to get them to agree to reduce the number of planned redundancies. The idea of fighting them is not mentioned. Instead, the seat at the negotiating table is everything. As Alison Barnes wrote on the NTEU website on 20 May: “But the kicker in the framework is that staff play a central role in crafting and implementing it.”

The idea that union officials should strike up some framework which would involve giving up members’ pay in return for job security measures is not a new strategy.

We need only look at the history of the Accord agreement between the unions and the Hawke government to see why this strategy is a disaster. The Accord involved the unions accepting pay cuts in return for certain vague and unenforceable commitments by the government around job creation and consultation with the union leaders. Not only did the Accord undermine wages more thoroughly than anything Thatcher or Reagan were able to achieve in the same period, it played a huge role in undermining militancy and promoted an idea of unions as partners in some common national interest shared by workers, the bosses and the government. This set the stage for the tame-cat unionism that has predominated ever since. A very important element of the Accord was the role of the left officials. It was their project and they were instrumental in winning acceptance for it and sidelining opposition because of the credibility that they had built up in earlier years from leading strikes. The left officials in the NTEU have attempted much the same thing but thanks to the internal opposition they did not succeed in winning the union members to support it.

Then there are other socialists, in many cases active members of socialist organisations, who have given the socialist bureaucrats left cover. That is, at a time when absolute clarity is needed on the lines of division within the unions – between those campaigning to push through a wage-cutting deal and those opposing it – they have blurred that divide, taking the heat off the officials leading the charge for wage cuts.

So, for example, the Socialist Alliance, whose members include the presidents of the James Cook University and Charles Sturt University branches, fudged these lines of division in their first Green Left Weekly article about the fight within the NTEU. As debate raged in the union, Green Left published an article on 21 April entitled “University unionists call for unity in debate over directions”. With members at Sydney Uni having already rejected the idea of trading off wages and conditions by 117 to 2, and three branches of the union having already passed motions censuring the national executive, the moment required that the left strongly back those organising opposition to the officials’ sell-out. Green Left, however, failed to do so, arguing lamely: “NTEU members differ on how best to fight in this situation. They are united in wanting to campaign to win public emergency and long-term higher education funding and opposition to unilateral cuts by management”.

Very briefly, in mid-May, more than a month since the campaign kicked off, Green Left Weekly struck a more oppositional tone, publishing articles attacking the deal and calling for a no vote. But this approach was short-lived. On 28 May, once the framework was defeated, GLW returned to its earlier position, trying to give the best possible gloss to the leaders who had tried to foist wage cuts on the membership, quoting Barnes’ claim that “The NTEU will now escalate to what will be historically high levels of industrial disputation”. This statement was nothing but hot air, a manoeuvre by the officials who, recognising the blow to their credibility with activist members of the union as a result of their support for the JPF, tried to turn on some militant rhetoric. Green Left, however, simply published the statement as good coin.

Solidarity, a small socialist group primarily based in Sydney, also weakened the campaign through their destructive intervention. While Solidarity members do not currently occupy full time official positions within the union the group has worked closely with Thomson for many years, producing a serious softness within their organisation towards him and other NTEU officials.

Very early in the campaign it became clear that the question of voting no to pay cuts and reduced conditions was central to building a fightback. The left officials were quite prepared to denounce the Morrison government’s refusal to fund higher education properly, as they were the vice chancellors’ announcements of redundancies. The officials explained at great length the damage that years of bipartisan neoliberal policies had done to the university sector. But one thing they could not tolerate was the demand that members vote no to their wage cutting deal.

Solidarity only helped to muddy the waters in this respect. At organising meetings, they were for anything but exposing the clearly counterposed positions of the rank and file militants and the left-talking officials. In the name of “unity”, that is, unity with the officials trying to cut members’ wages, their members refused to make “vote no” the central demand of the campaign. At a National Higher Education Action planning meeting on 8 May, UTS staff member Paddy Gibson baldly stated “I’m not going to hand out leaflets outside UTS saying vote against our national officials”. They tried to caricature the “vote no” campaign as saying that that its proponents had no plans for anything else, that it was a diversion or that the ballot was only a rumour. This was just cover for their refusal to condemn the leadership. Socialist Alternative members and other NTEU activists always argued that winning a vote against wage cuts was not the be-all and end-all, even if it was extremely important, and was a crucial first step in the fights to come.

In place of a solid “vote no” campaign, Solidarity preferred to prioritise a National Day of Action.  They argued that this - rather than the vote no campaign - should be the focus for NTEU activists.  Their main concern was to win the union leadership’s endorsement of the NDA. Making “vote no” central would only antagonise the national executive and prevent them from endorsing the NDA. They boasted of their private overtures to the left officials, that they were winning them over to the idea. But they were pushing at an open door.

The national executive grasped the NDA with both hands since they understood that it would be a great opportunity to give themselves the appearance of fighting the cuts while at the same time implementing them. They put on a big promotion campaign for the NDA, proclaiming the day as “Epic!” In reality, the day passed most members by, but the left officials threw themselves into it. Cahill and Thomson were quite happy to take part in the NDA car convoy in Sydney while Barnes took the opportunity to use the national livestream forum where she appeared alongside management figures from the higher education sector to argue for the wage cutting national framework.

Instead of clarifying the role of these union officials - a vital part of organising to defeat them and their deal – Solidarity sought to excuse them.

Under pressure from the rank and file rebellion and left wing criticism, Solidarity modified their approach late in the campaign, acting as if they had never argued against a “vote no” campaign. Yet as late as 23 May at a Sydney Uni staff and student meeting, they were still complaining in the Zoom chat that demanding the campaign be centred on voting no to the sell-out deal was “disrupting the ability of rank and file activists and union officials to work together”. And so it should, when the union officials are pushing a sell-out. In that circumstance, working together with union officials means helping bosses attack workers.

For many years the retreat of the union movement and the small size of the socialist left meant socialists had few opportunities to lead rank and file work. During this period sections of the socialist left accommodated to left-talking trade union officials and moderated their criticisms of them. It has taken a real rank and file revolt in the NTEU to reveal clearly what the problems with this are.

Arguing for unionists to resist all forms of class collaboration and understanding the role of trade union officials (including those on the left) who promote it, are key issues for the left. Analysing the conflicting arguments and positions of different groups of socialists towards union officials in the NTEU is not therefore just some theoretical exercise. Historically, many socialists have veered between two wrong positions: on the one hand, simply writing off the left officials and refusing to work with them because of their record of selling out rank and file members; on the other just tailing behind them, apologising for them and covering up for their betrayals. Rather than take either of these mistaken positions, socialists need to understand that the left officials can never ultimately be trusted because they are far more loyal to the rest of the union machinery and their good relations with the employers than they are to workers, but that insofar as the left officials are on occasion prepared to issue calls for action, to seize such openings to build rank and file union power. As union delegates in Scotland’s industrial heartlands in Glasgow put it so succinctly in 1915: “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them”.

In Australia in 2020, the argument that workers’ interests can best be protected by collaborating with bosses will not be confined to the NTEU, as Scott Morrison’s recent attempt (so far successful) to draw the ACTU into some Accord 2.0 framework with the employers and government indicates. Clarifying the approach socialists should take to union officials is absolutely necessary if we are going to build the fight back we need to confront this historic crisis.

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