The NTEU fightback goes on – on difficult terrain

23 July 2020
Diane Fieldes

An incredible effort by NTEU Fightback, a group of rank and file members of the National Tertiary Education Union, and other union activists at Melbourne University defeated a management-initiated attack on wages and conditions in June. This was an important result. It sent a message to higher education workers everywhere that it is possible to defeat such attacks. But so far it has been an isolated success.

Rather than taking the victory at Melbourne Uni as an indication that workers can fight off concessions through determined organising, the national officials took it as an opportunity to advertise their openness to concessions as long as they were involved in negotiating them. In her very muted response to the Melbourne Uni victory, NTEU national president Alison Barnes pleaded with the 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”. So far, at least partly because of the strength of the membership mobilisation that defeated their attack, Melbourne Uni management has not taken up her offer.

As NTEU Fightback argued from the outset, offering concessions to the bosses does nothing to save jobs. A quick glance at the 7 July issue of the NTEU journal, the Advocate, indicates that national union leaders don’t really believe it either. The first article, “Tsunami of job losses on the way”, is something of a giveaway. Their solution? “All we need is a government willing to commit to supporting higher education and the managerial class of the sector to unify behind ... higher education.” Back on planet Earth, there is plenty of evidence that their strategy of helping university managements impose cuts on their members is not stopping the tsunami.

Already at two of the three campuses where the vice-chancellors endorsed the union’s concessionary framework, there are cuts: Monash is slashing 277 jobs and La Trobe, despite staff voting to support a 10 percent wage cut under the framework, has announced 215-415 redundancies and is looking for further wage cuts. At the third campus, the University of Western Australia, the NTEU-negotiated deal cut wages by up to 10 percent (that’s an incredible $247 a fortnight for a professional staff member on $65,588, the median full time female wage). Far from protecting members from job losses, agreeing to wage cuts and undermining conditions just signals to the government and management that university workers are an easy target.

But the NTEU officials are incapable of learning this lesson. Everywhere, the union machine continues to push concessions rather than oppose them. Two more campuses, Western Sydney University and the University of Tasmania, have now introduced union-management schemes that reduce staff pay, in an atmosphere of fear into which the small numbers of new union activists found it difficult to intervene. NTEU officials at QUT are currently negotiating a jointly sponsored set of cuts with management. It includes a pay freeze, loss of the 17.5 percent annual leave loading for at least a year, a compulsory Christmas shutdown and forcing staff to use their accumulated leave. Once again, one of the wealthiest institutions in Australian society raids the entitlements of its workforce. The NTEU’s approach can only encourage it to ask for more.

While the rank and file organising effort at Melbourne Uni has not been replicated elsewhere, there are other campuses where the union has managed to defeat a management-initiated ballot. At Wollongong, 62 percent rejected the vice-chancellor’s blackmail that unless they voted for wage cuts there would be job losses. This win shows that one of the national NTEU officials’ main arguments for accepting concessions is simply wrong: workers do have the ability to reject employer efforts to impose concessions. But the local NTEU branch, in accordance with the approach of the national and division union officials, pitched the entire campaign as not rejecting concessions as such, but wanting to be involved in devising them.

The downside to 62 percent opposing the employer’s attack is that the officials squandered this hostility to wage cuts by immediately reiterating their only objection to concessions – that they want to negotiate the terms. In mid-July, their wish came true: 84 percent of union members voted in favour of an NTEU-brokered wage cut that will freeze pay until 2022, give promotions without pay rises and allow the university to shift staff into different work. All this for the most tepid management commitment of all the miserable unenforceable promises to date: “no forced redundancies directly due to COVID-19” before 20 April 2021 (other forced redundancies will be fine before then) and meaningless gestures that fixed term and casual staff will get work, if there is work and funding is available.

At the union branch meeting where this was announced, union officials said unequivocally that they couldn’t guarantee no job losses under the variation. This means that staff can expect job losses to continue, or for the university to come back again for further pay cuts (like those it initially sought), or both.

As the combined efforts of the NTEU machine and Australian Council of Trade Unions call centre resources push for a yes vote to wage cuts and other concessions at the three framework campuses showed, there are forces other than the bosses arrayed against the rank and file. The forces of resistance are small and scattered, so we have an uphill battle ahead. The NTEU Fightback slogan, “Vote no and keep organising”, is the only way forward.

On a number of campuses, starting from a handful of Socialist Alternative members, NTEU Fightback has established a small but solid core of union activists whose project is to crack open the passive, conservative and concessionary culture that has developed over years in the NTEU. Whether they are union activists with many years of organising under their belts or newly formed groups of activists who can see through the officials arguments, their task remains the same – arguing that unions exist to fight the bosses, not to do deals with them, and building rank and file confidence to act on it.

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