A successful 24-hour strike at the University of Sydney last Thursday kicked off plans for a semester of escalating industrial action.
The strike was the best supported of the campaign so far, as members of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) staged their seventh day of strike action. After their six strike days in 2022 this marked the longest industrial campaign in Sydney Uni’s history.
At a union meeting on 22 February of more than 450 members, staff voted for six days of strike action during the semester. The membership overwhelmingly voted for this week’s 24-hour strike, followed by a 48-hour strike in week six, a 72-hour strike in week ten and further escalation including marking bans if university management do not meet their demands.
This anger at management’s intransigence was reflected in both the size and the strength of the strike. The campus was completely deserted, with picket lines on all the main entrances to the university.
For the first time this campaign, staff and students were able to form a hard picket line across the entire width of the university’s main entrance at Eastern Avenue, preventing the few staff and students who were trying to cross the picket from entering the university.
Staff from a variety of departments gave speeches throughout the day, highlighting the experience of the strike campaign so far and the escalation needed to secure tangible wins.
Twenty months into the campaign, management have refused to address key union demands including a pay rise above inflation, sick pay for casuals as well as pay for all hours worked, a 20 per cent reduction in casualisation and a cap on “Education Focused” role as well as withdrawing their attack on the 40:40:20 workload model.
Nick Riemer, branch president of the NTEU at Sydney University told picketers, “At the moment management are … asking us to give away rights and to take less pay. We’re not going to settle for either. We are determined to defend and extend our rights at this university.”
Management have tried to claim their pay offer is “sector leading”, offering staff a bribe of a one-off $2000 bonus. But it amounts to a pay rise of just 3.3 per cent a year, a real pay cut of 5.6 per cent over the life of the agreement after inflation, including the period of almost two years since the last agreement expired. This is actually less than at other universities including UTS, Western Sydney University and ACU.
They have also lowered their targets for Indigenous employment, moving from the population parity target that staff are demanding to just 2 per cent.
Staff were rightly incensed by management’s latest offer. The university posted a billion-dollar operating surplus for 2021 off the back of massive casualisation, job and course cuts, exploitative international student fees and widespread wage theft.
As professional staff member Amy Griffiths put it at the strike rally, it is “another fiction that this rich university doesn’t have enough money to pay us a living pay rise or pay our casual staff for the hours we do”.
Students once again organised Zoom and roaming pickets to disrupt strike-breaking classes. These classes were interrupted for a significant amount of time as students presented arguments to the tutors and students about the need to support the strikes.
In one case, 40 of the 60 students in a civil engineering class were convinced to walk out of their class in solidarity. In other departments entire courses were shut down for the day.
This escalation is a testament to the militant direction of the campaign which has seen union membership at Sydney Uni increase by 15 per cent. Staff have shown how to fight back and are well placed to continue their fight if management refuse to drop their offensive.
“We have a deeply hostile, militant management who are determined to railroad us into submission,” Riemer warned at the closing rally.
If they refuse to budge he called on members to “come back twice as strong, twice as loud, twice as determined, with twice as powerful strikes and other forms of disruption”.
By Angus Dermody