New sector benchmark, but NTEU officials scupper fantastic Sydney Uni fight

After a historic nine days of strike action over the past 21 months (three of them this year), NTEU members at the University of Sydney have voted 364-290 against a further three days’ strike in their current enterprise agreement campaign.

The USyd branch will now put several final “settlement points”, including Indigenous employment parity, to university management as a basis for settling a new EA. But there was more that the campaign could have won and many USyd unionists will be left lamenting the untapped potential that further escalation and defiance might have brought.

The USyd industrial campaign has already won a new benchmark for tertiary sector wage increases, plus five days’ casual sick pay, defending the 40/40/20 workload model for academics, 20 per cent decasualisation, 330 new jobs and gender affirmation leave.

These wins stemmed from grassroots organising which consistently mobilised large numbers of members to meetings and picket lines and contributed to a high level of politicisation across the campus.

While the wage increase is behind inflation and far less than the billion-dollar institution can afford, workers will get an immediate increase of 4.6 per cent when the agreement is signed, along with a $2000 sign-on payment (compensation for lost pay over the bargaining period), then 3.75 per cent in 2024, 3.75 per cent in 2025 and 4 per cent in 2026.

The three-day strike proposal would have been the third stage of a first-semester escalating campaign driven by the rank-and-file group RAFA (Rank and File Action) that saw a one-day strike in week 3 and a two-day strike across weeks 6 and 7.

The escalating strikes were designed to break the administration’s intransigence on pay, Indigenous employment levels and its determination to undermine critical education and entrench/increase teaching-only roles as part of their business model.

But what if we win, Damien?

Many USyd NTEU members are seething at the disgraceful role played by general secretary Damien Cahill and NSW industrial officer Simon Kempton. This official intervention was the culmination of campaign-long attempts to limit the scope of the branch’s struggle including the withholding of financial and industrial resources, limiting access to membership lists and a general level of timidity in the face of potential legal threats. The officials’ intervention holds important lessons for other universities in dispute.

The official NTEU line has been that this round of bargaining is not a good period, with the union facing aggressive uni bosses. The NSW division has followed a “rapid settlement strategy”. This has meant universities, so far, in NSW have settled for modest gains after token industrial action. At UTS, the officials even put a motion to wind up the dispute last year, although the motion to settle had never been endorsed by the branch committee.

The stand at USyd, however, broke the mould, showing that with determined action it was possible to grow union membership by more than 14 per cent, win bigger pay rises and greater gains. Even for the University of Sydney, traditionally the bellwether campus in the country, the number of strike days were historic. The union meetings have also been historically large, with more than 700 attending each of the last two meetings.

The USyd meetings received messages of support from around the country including from ANU, Curtin, UNSW and MUA delegates at Hutchison.

Yet Cahill exercised the secretary’s right to address any union meeting—not to commit the division’s support for further strike action but to scaremonger about a possible non-union ballot and intervention by the Fair Work Commission.

After claiming to be neutral in the immediate debate about the three-day strike, Cahill left little doubt that he was in favour of NTEU members winding up the dispute. 

One union member, rejecting the scaremongering, heckled Cahill in the meeting: “But what if we win, Damien?”

The bosses’ tactic of using non-union ballots has had very limited success. It was only at poorly unionised sites that non-union ballots have been won, such as Southern Cross Uni and Charles Darwin, hardly comparable to the NTEU’s flagship workplace at USyd.

At better organised workplaces, non-union ballots have been decisively rejected: at Newcastle 82 per cent recently voted no, at Curtin 72 per cent voted no.

In the last bargaining round, 61 per cent at USyd voted down a non-union ballot. But rather than provide a measured assessment, Cahill bolstered fears that management’s tactic could somehow settle the dispute on worse terms.

He also declared that the USyd dispute was at risk of being declared an “intractable dispute” under Labor’s new industrial relations laws, although the law that would allow arbitration by the Fair Work Commission does not come into force until 6 June.

Disgracefully, Cahill said nothing about a national NTEU week of action timed for the first week of May; action that would have coincided with, and built support for, the USyd strike. Although formally decided months ago, the announcement of the week of action was made the day after USyd voted against the three-day strike.

Rank and file action has been key

The organised intervention of RAFA at USyd has been a key factor in pushing the dispute forward. RAFA meetings provided a way for the most active delegates and members to meet, consider strategy and plan a way forward. The RAFA bulletins reported on the bargaining meetings, drew out the lessons of the strikes and argued for the next steps in the campaign.

RAFA took local organising seriously and mobilised members to respond to job threats in the Student Centre, bullying in the Faculty of Medicine and Health and to actively build union numbers and support for the strike action. 

A recent RAFA bulletin warned about the potential role the officials might play in trying to settle the dispute, explaining their role as brokers in disputes rather than reliable builders. National and state officials played that role at USyd in 2017.

Cahill could have offered unstinting support from the national office to defeat any non-union ballot and confront Fair Work and Labor’s new laws regarding “intractable disputes”. Instead his scaremongering was designed to leave union members no option other than to settle.  

More can be won

Universities across the country are now entering bargaining periods including Newcastle, Curtin, Melbourne, UNSW, RMIT, Macquarie and La Trobe. The USyd dispute has set a new benchmark for the tertiary sector but it is a floor, not a ceiling. With organisation and solidarity, more can be won at other universities.

USyd is both a lesson and a warning. The warning is that our officials are not always willing to fight to win. Yes, we need to understand the bosses have used non-union ballots—but they can and have been beaten. Labor’s intractable dispute law is a bad law. But it is not even law yet. Even if it was, our union leaders’ job is to fight against it, not capitulate at the first threat. 

There is an old saying, “If you don’t fight, you lose.” 

The lesson is that the better the rank and file is organised, the better the outcome; the more willing to fight, the more that can be won. Seemingly intransigent bosses can be beaten; we don’t have to settle for miserable pay increases; casualisation can be successfully fought; and the neoliberal attacks on the nature of teaching and research in higher education are not a fait accompli.

We need greater solidarity across the sector; universities should not be left to fight alone. Pattern bargaining needs to be turned into a genuine national campaign along with demands for increased funding from a Labor government.

The NTEU at USyd has emerged stronger, more organised and more prepared for the inevitable struggles ahead. Its struggle can mean bigger gains can be won across the sector.

By Solidarity USyd NTEU members

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