In the middle of unprecedented management and government attacks on university workers, National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) officials have declared war on rank and file unionists they disagree with.

There has been an outraged response across the union and beyond. At least 626 people, including 430 members of the NTEU, have signed the protest letter drawn up by NTEU Fightback calling for the withdrawal of a precedent-setting motion that would gag unionists at Murdoch University. If you’re a unionist, please sign it.

Thousands of university workers have lost their jobs during the COVID-19 crisis, both because the federal government has refused to provide the same employment subsidies to universities as they did to the private sector, and because vice chancellors have used the opportunity to restructure employment and cut pay and conditions.

Early in the crisis, the national leadership of the NTEU, in a “Jobs Protection Framework”, shamefully offered wage and conditions reductions to the university bosses, in return for a role in implementing them. In the face of a massive revolt by union members and rejection by some vice chancellors, the framework was dropped.

The rank and file organising centre NTEU Fightback played a crucial role in building opposition to the framework, by providing and distributing detailed arguments against it and formulating an alternative approach to the current crisis. Fightback emphasises the importance of resisting all attacks on university workers now, rather than offering concessions, building membership self-confidence and combativity, so that sustained strike action can be a feature of the campaign over enterprise agreements which expire at key universities in the middle of next year.

But union officials have persisted with their concessionary approach at individual universities. And they hate the fact that there are members speaking out against it.

These are the circumstances in which Murdoch University branch and Western Australian NTEU division officials are attempting to gag activists who are critical of the union’s approach. Local and divisional officials put together a motion for the Murdoch NTEU Branch Committee meeting on Monday 9 November, seeking to ban union members from being able to “advocate amongst the membership positions at variance with Union decisions”, or to participate in any public discussion of debates within the union. The motion would allow the Branch Committee to sack delegates who don’t adhere to this policy.

The Murdoch Branch leadership, which failed to organise serious resistance to a massive reduction in conditions in 2018, has taken aim at anyone who might voice criticism of union policy in general and two members of NTEU Fightback in particular. Both are very effective delegates. One is a member of the Branch Committee and a thorn in the side of its old guard. The other initiated and has led the network of casual workers at Murdoch. They have been demonstrating in practice how one of the union’s weakest and most demoralised branches can be rebuilt.

Earlier this year, Murdoch management balloted staff to vary their agreement and take a significant pay cut. The casual Fightback member was instrumental in carrying an argument among casuals to reject the bribe offered by the university to casual and low paid staff in an effort to secure support for the proposed pay cut. She did this while maintaining her criticisms of the union’s overall strategy. The campaign was successful with casual staff part of the 73 percent of total votes cast against the deal.

The officials were afraid to take their motion to a general meeting of members. Still afraid of their own members, they are now taking the even more undemocratic step of putting it to an email vote of Branch Committee members, because the in-person Branch Committee meeting they put it to was inquorate.

Under this bureaucratic manoeuvre, members of the Branch Committee who have not participated in or even heard the debate, and some who have long been inactive, will be deciding whether or not to gag members they disagree with.

The motion restricting democracy would have stopped Jack Mundey in his tracks. Earlier this year, unionists around Australia celebrated the life of Jack Mundey, one of the leaders of the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation in the early 1970s. The BLF in this period was famous for its Green Bans: after thorough debate at every level of the union, labourers imposed work bans to preserve green space and working class housing, to defend gay rights and women’s rights, and to support anti-racist and anti-war struggles.

Of course, Mundey’s rise to the leadership of the BLF was not smooth. For years, Mundey and his rank and file team put out a newsletter called The Hoist, which promoted a serious industrial strategy as well as democracy and progressive policies in the union. Mundey’s team used the left press, including the Communist Party newspaper Tribune, to discuss their project and to recruit members to their rank and file group.

None of this would have been possible if they had abided by a ban on “advocating amongst the membership positions at variance with Union decisions”, or a ban on participating in debates in public forums, such as Tribune, about the direction of the union. The fact is that rank and file groups, reform groups, caucuses, and debates in public forums—including rank and file newsletters and left-wing media—have an important place in the history of virtually all unions.

NTEU officials, not only at Murdoch and in Western Australia but also nationally, are adopting the approach of the Shop, Distributive and Allied union (SDA), among the least democratic and most right wing in the country. The recent National Council of the NTEU adopted motions designed to intimidate critics by condemning “division” (their code for criticism of the leadership’s policies) and condemning “bullying” (their code for criticism of the leadership’s policies) within the union. These motions were supported by arguments that NTEU Fightback was undermining solidarity and potentially bringing the union into disrepute.

The Council also rejected a motion reinstating the practice of allowing delegates to know who the members in their workplaces are. This information, which even the SDA gives its delegates, was denied to NTEU delegates in the course of the debate about the Jobs Protection Framework. For the NTEU’s leadership, avoiding potential criticism came before building an effective union.

NTEU Fightback members of the Council had a different approach. They moved the motion about membership lists for delegates. Watered down by the officials, their motion committing the union to demanding effective paths to continuing jobs for casuals was carried. Their proposal that the union replace its strategy of pre-emptive surrender on job cuts, by offering concessions to university managements, with a fighting approach was defeated. They supported a motion to devote more resources to organising casuals, which was also voted down.

Union activists committed to building the NTEU and fighting their employers’ offensive know that their success depends on resisting their own officials’ attacks on union democracy too.