Worker organising defeats management at Melbourne Uni

11 June 2020
Katie Wood

Bosses at Melbourne University, one of the wealthiest institutions in Australia, have tried to steal a week’s wages from its employees and worsen redundancy conditions, only to be defeated by an incredible burst of worker organising. In results released late Thursday morning, management announced that of 8,069 staff who voted, an extraordinary 5,190 – 64% – voted No.

This is an extremely significant result. It sends a message to higher education workers at La Trobe, Monash, ANU, Wollongong, UWA and elsewhere that it is possible to defeat employer-sponsored attacks on wages and conditions. Management at the University of Melbourne wanted to reverse a recent 2.2% pay rise, and to introduce new, less generous provisions for “voluntary” redundancies.

The way the victory was won is at least as significant as the result itself. In the past ten days, more than 1,700 workers across Melbourne University attended 20 meetings in their local work areas to discuss management’s attack and the union’s response. Management at one of the most wealthy and powerful institutions in the country was defeated by systematic worker organisation.

This kind of organising drive has no parallel in recent years either at Melbourne University or in higher education more broadly. It’s a welcome shift from the dominant approach of unions in Australia, and the national leadership of the NTEU in particular, who have expressed a deep pessimism about the ability to organise workers in the workplace in order to resist – and used that pessimistic outlook as a justification for signing terrible, wage-cutting deals with management at many campuses.

The fantastic burst of organising at the University of Melbourne is exactly the antidote required. One example among many: in Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, 45 people attended the first union meeting in living memory in the faculty, with 76 Zooming in last week for a second meeting.

The meeting showed very clearly why it’s so important that union organising provides a platform for workers to engage in such discussions, not least in a time of social isolation. The meeting was open to both union members and non-members, because all staff can vote in the variation ballot.

One staff member raised that they thought that a small wage cut, or a similar concession such as a compulsory cut in work-time fractions, would be acceptable. This is a widespread opinion – unsurprisingly, given that both the University and the national leadership of the NTEU have been arguing that this is the best way to save the jobs of colleagues. But it was roundly rebutted by numerous other staff members and a healthy discussion ensued.

Workers discussing common issues with their trusted fellow workers should be the foundation of trade unionism. But many unions have generally avoided such basic organising work. In fact, for many years, from the “Accord” of the 1980s onwards, the deliberate and rigorously enforced policy of the top leadership of the union movement was explicitly to not engage in this sort of on-the-job organising.

The wage-cutting, concessionary approach of the NTEU’s national leadership follows this model. Their “National Jobs Protection Framework” opened the door to wage cuts of 15% , as well as serious attacks on provisions like the clauses governing consultation and major change, which are often used to campaign against job-cutting restructures. Attempts to impose the “Framework” at a national scale imploded a country-wide rank and file rebellion within the union, but the same concessionary approach, and the same “model” clauses, are being pushed hard by the NTEU at several campuses.

Indeed, in her response to the ballot result, the National President of the NTEU, Alison Barnes, sought to foist the Framework back on the Melbourne University branch, pleading with management: “We have negotiated a framework which allows for temporary pay reductions to save jobs, provided vice chancellors are transparent about their finances and open to co-operative negotiation.”

But the non-union ballot at Melbourne University showed clearly the dangers of such an approach. The Framework sowed confusion amongst union members who questioned what difference there was between the union or the university proposing wage cuts. Melbourne University management used the space opened up by the NTEU leadership to rush to a non-union ballot.

The NTEU should abandon its zombie Framework and use the results at Melbourne to wage a national campaign to defend the wages, conditions and jobs of all university workers across the country.

The unprecedented organising in the branch against the non-union ballot was kicked off largely without the support of the state or national offices of the union, aside from the work of the existing branch organisers. It speaks volumes about the priorities of the union office that it seemed last week that more organiser resources were being put into selling an awful, union-negotiated variation at La Trobe, than into resisting an employer-sponsored attack at Melbourne.

The only serious intervention of the national leadership into the early part of the campaign was an email by the National Secretary to all members, which chose to re-prosecute the arguments for the National Framework. This only served to confuse members and muddy the waters. Additional resources were eventually allocated. They were important in the past few days of phone banking. But this victory belongs to the branch delegates and activists who organised long and hard over the past few weeks, not to the architects of the Framework.

We can’t expect the success at Melbourne to be easily reproduced across other campuses. The corporatisation of Universities and bloating of their layers of management has created a natural constituency for a Yes vote. And the context of the union’s National Framework has made it harder to give staff confidence in the reasons for voting No.

As we’ve already seen, the union machine is working hard to push concessions at many places, rather than oppose them. And also crucially, not every campus has a layer of activists dedicated to systematic, methodical, workplace organising, which has been a focus at Melbourne for some time, and has had a massive boost in the past couple of months with Vote No campaigning.

But win lose or draw, systematic organising and a firm stance against concessions is the way forward. The branch has a campaign committee and delegates that have shown this week they are capable of impressive feats. We know that the next few years are going to be a hard fight. But at least by signalling at the start that we are willing and able to engage in that fight we have given ourselves something to build upon. And that is where the future of the union lies, at Melbourne and far beyond.

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