The NTEU Framework Agreement is dead—Now we fight the cuts

The withdrawal of the NTEU executive’s proposed “National Jobs Protection Framework” (NJPF) is very good news.

The rank-and-file revolt has brought the National Executive to its senses—casuals’ networks, branch committees and members’ meetings across the country had expressed their opposition to the Framework.

Perhaps the overwhelming resolution from the ANU members’ meeting (almost 90 per cent opposed the Framework) on Tuesday put the nail in its coffin.

The Framework Agreement was always mistaken and would have disarmed the membership by having a union-endorsed agreement to cut wages. It has wasted a lot of time, but thousands of new members have joined, and thousands more are actively engaged in the discussion of how the union can best resist the cuts the uni managements will try to ram through.

An injury to one is an injury to all. The solidarity that has defeated the Framework Agreement has put us in a good position to take the fight onto every campus and build the active campaign that can defeat the cuts.

Deakin management has already announced that they will axe 400 jobs.

Melbourne University is pushing for a staff vote to withdraw a pay rise and reduce redundancy entitlements. We need to go all out to back any fight at Deakin, and to make sure the agreement variation at Melbourne University is voted down.

After the National Framework was withdrawn, the NTEU National President, Alison Barnes, said, “NTEU will now escalate to what will be historically high levels of industrial disputation and campaigning to fight for every job.”

This needs to go beyond just challenging job cuts through Fair Work. We need our officials to throw everything into mobilising members to fight any attempt to cut jobs and conditions.

Nor is the approach which produced the Framework entirely dead. It seems the NTEU officials still want to put it to a vote on the three campuses where management support the Framework approach, at University of WA, La Trobe and Monash. Those campuses should vote No.

Our officials should also now commit to a substantial political campaign to fight the Morrison government. The government’s $60 billion JobKeeper blunder is an opportunity for the NTEU to go hard to demand that the Morrison government covers the funding shortfall in the tertiary education sector.

It is now obvious that the government CAN find the money to include all uni workers in JobKeeper and that it can also find the money to boost public university funding and end the university business model based on private funding arrangements like corporate sponsorship and domestic and international student fees. 

Organising to win

Local organising at RMIT shows what is possible. Since March, membership has grown by 300 to over 1900 members. Actively building stronger workplace organisation means there are now over 100 workplace delegates at RMIT.

Thousands of university workers have joined the NTEU in just the last few weeks. They didn’t join to see their wages and conditions cut. We can build a stronger union by organising and expanding the base of the union.

This kind of organising work is possible on every campus. There is action that can be taken everywhere as we build our industrial strength. Members can vote to reject some cost-cutting measures without immediately taking industrial action. They can also use existing “change management” procedures in enterprise agreements to direct their Industrial Officers to raise a dispute that can result in lengthy dispute resolution proceedings. This delay provides time to organise to stop the cuts.

Students are our allies. As the scale of course cuts becomes more apparent, student campaigns against course cuts will boost any union campaign for jobs and conditions.

We can fight

The government and the uni managements are trying to use the economic downturn to push through cuts, restructures and workplace changes they were already hoping to implement.

But the truth is that the government and the university managements are politically weak. The government’s JobKeeper $60 billion shortfall has left them looking incompetent, biased and short-sighted. The government is already under fire from mainstream commentators for refusing to extend the JobKeeper and JobSeeker programs.

Neither the universities nor the government wants a real fight in the present circumstances. The government has withdrawn its union-bashing Ensuring Integrity Bill in the hope that unions will go along with the cuts it wants to make. It has an enormous social and economic crisis to manage as millions have been thrown onto unemployment queues.

University managements are banking on getting international students back, and getting back to business as usual, as soon as possible. It looks like most universities will open for semester two. Management has relied on the goodwill of NTEU members to shift functioning online. Even a minimal withdrawal of goodwill (the equivalent of a work to rule) would cause management major grief.

Industrial action of any sort would be a major disruption to their public relations and their business plans just when they want to present a very stable picture to the world. Even limited protest action by staff and students has forced Sydney University to revise down their list of arts subjects being axed.

We have learned over the last weeks that the best resource the union has is an active rank and file. That’s the power that can be mobilised to fight the cuts on every campus.

Morrison’s call for collaboration with the union movement for an Accord 2.0 is a scarcely-veiled move to cut conditions across the board. Like John Howard, he wants to introduce another WorkChoices attack on workers’ rights on the back of the COVID-19 crisis. The NTEU has learned from bitter experience over the past few weeks that the government cannot be trusted. The union needs to be in the forefront of campaigning to oppose any increased flexibility in awards or enterprise bargaining and any attack on penalty rates, or extension of hours.

In trying to talk up the NJPF, some NTEU officials have been scaremongering that the union and even individual members would face fines for taking taking unprotected industrial action. The threat of fines is massively exaggerated and ignores the fact that even protest action at a local level has already won concessions from uni managements.

In the opening throes of the COVID-19 crisis 100 casuals at the University of Melbourne rallied for pandemic leave and occupied the foyer outside the university’s COVID-19 taskforce office. Casuals won guaranteed sick leave and isolation leave within a matter of days.

Unprotected industrial action has also won gains in the past without anyone being fined. In 2005 UTS casuals took unprotected action to impose a marking ban and won increased pay. The casuals logged all the time they had spent marking during semester and then moved to withhold the results until they were paid for all hours worked.

All the universities would be susceptible to this sort of action at a time when their operations are massively disrupted.

The CFMEU has been fined hundreds of thousands for taking illegal industrial action but rarely have individual members been fined. It is absurd to suggest that the NTEU would face anything like the fines Fair Work has dished out to the CFMEU.

In any case, the benefit of taking action far outweighs any fine likely to be imposed on the union. It is the price unions pay for organising and representing members when industrial action is prohibited under the Coalition’s (Un) Fair Work Act. It’s why the NTEU has a fighting fund.

In the next period, we need to :

  • Organise campus meetings to establish action groups that can plan local protest and industrial action against any cuts
  • Back every fight against cuts—nation-wide solidarity will matter on every campus
  • Organise to vote NO to any agreement variations being put to individual branches
  • Call on our state and federal officials to organise another National Day of Action to call for full funding of tertiary education and the extension of JobKeeper

By Solidarity members in the NTEU

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