At a National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members meeting at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) on 15 July, the branch leadership  continued on its path of offering up concessions demanded by management.

In this case, management’s demands are voluntary redundancies, plus forcing workers to run down their leave balances and introducing an additional one-week compulsory Christmas shutdown. The union’s demand is that it be involved in negotiating this loss of conditions. It’s all in the name of the bosses’ (and unfortunately also the union officials’) mantra that sacrificing conditions is the way to save jobs. This is the logic behind the NTEU officials’ failed “national jobs protection framework”, which is now being resurrected by officials on individual campuses.

In response, NTEU Fightback members at UTS proposed a motion which began by pointing out that UTS staff, particularly casual academic and professional staff, have already experienced significant cuts to jobs and conditions. This is therefore not the first attack – it is the next in a program of cuts that need to be resisted.

In essence, our motion argued that the union’s starting point should be to oppose all cuts in jobs, wages and conditions. Voluntary redundancies generally increase workloads for those remaining and are often followed by forced redundancies. Measures that reduce staff leave balances will reduce members’ payouts if forced redundancies follow. A shutdown could leave some staff with no option but to take unpaid leave over Christmas. 

Instead of negotiating the terms of acceptance of these variations to our enterprise agreement, our motion called for a campaign to fight them, as well as to demand the federal government fully fund universities, including the $5 billion revenue shortfall.

The motion moved by the NTEU officials reflected a very different approach, encapsulated in its appalling opening paragraph: “a Union’s position not to negotiate with the University management or to wholly refuse any proposals for variations to the current Academic Staff and Professional Staff Agreements is not tenable”, i.e. give up without a fight.

The subsequent paragraphs of their motion rested on the same assumption – that these changes are going to happen, and the role of the union is to negotiate the conditions under which they do.

Shockingly, members of the small left group Solidarity argued and voted with the branch leadership to negotiate on accepting the concessions asked for, arguing, “It’s an incredibly minor agreement variation”. Amending the leadership’s motion to remove the hostile first paragraph did not change its fundamental content.

Nor is it minor to mess with workers’ leave. It’s part of what we earn for working, and how it’s used should be decided by us, not dictated by management. Companies around Australia are running down leave balances in the current crisis to prepare for future redundancies by making payouts cheaper. No leftist should call this softening up operation “minor” in a union meeting. 

Staff at UTS are being massively disarmed by the union, which is refusing to oppose these management demands. It was really infuriating to see people on the left give cover to this approach. I’m proud that a group of us put a serious argument against concessions, winning 27 percent of the meeting to rejecting management’s demands outright. But we know management are not finished, and neither are we. They can expect a fight, along with anyone who pushes their line in the union.