Victorian university staff move into action

University workers across Victoria are moving into action over enterprise bargaining, with a Melbourne-wide strike-day meeting overflowing Trades Hall on 3 May.

Members of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) struck at the University of Melbourne, Monash (for a full day), La Trobe and Federation University. They were joined by a significant contingent of workers from RMIT, where bargaining is only just getting under way.

Up to 800 workers and students marched to the meeting from the University of Melbourne.

Members at Monash struck again on 16 May and unanimously voted to intensify their campaign, with further strikes and pickets planned, while workers at Swinburne have voted by a large majority to authorise industrial action. Bargaining is now under way at RMIT and Victoria University. There has also been stopwork action at Deakin.

Members at Federation voted unanimously to intensify their bargaining campaign, with a protest planned at Ballarat Heritage Festival on 27 May, leading into a rally in the mid-year break and escalating strikes in early semester two.

At La Trobe University, the NTEU has won back $2 million in stolen wages, owed to 2000 casual workers.

Members at Melbourne Uni voted to stop for two hours on 24 May and picket to protest the investiture of a new chancellor. The strike was called off after the university cancelled its celebration.

The 3 May meeting voted for potential further strikes everywhere. One member said the NTEU at Melbourne Uni was looking to “increased escalation up to and including indefinite stop work if the university doesn’t make progress”.

At Melbourne Uni the key demands include a pay rise of CPI plus 1.5 per cent, permanent jobs, reasonable workloads, work-from-home rights, extra parental leave entitlements and gender affirmation leave.

The campaign is also fighting a management-imposed neoliberal restructure, which has already seen the privatisation of the Werribee veterinary clinic and staff layoffs at Werribee campus and International House.

The campaign by the Melbourne Uni Casuals Network (now the Insecure Workers Network), which clawed back millions in stolen wages, showed the university can be beaten, even outside of official bargaining periods.

One NTEU member told Solidarity that many activists learnt their skills from the campaign. “It has clearly influenced the branch to have a very grassroots activist orientation. It made casuals the centre of the branch and geared everyone to the kind of disruptive action that actually wins.”

The enterprise agreement battles now being fought across the state need that kind of independent rank-and-file organisation to force major wins.

Voices from the struggle

Solidarity spoke to a range of workers at the 3 May rally about the issues that matter to them and the way forward.

Why are you on strike today? What are you fighting for?

“Over the last year or so the union reached out to its members ahead of a new EBA and asked what they wanted. They then condensed that down to five key claims—working from home rights, restructures, reasonable workloads, job security, and a real pay rise compared to inflation. The university has negotiated in bad faith on this and has essentially said no to most of [our claims] and pushed off the rest … The university threw in a few concessions around First Nations’ cultural leave. [However overall] we were at a standstill, and it was time to force the university’s hand. That’s why we are on strike today and why we will be ramping up to more industrial action later.”

Callum Simpson, casual professional staff (Melbourne Uni)

“A big feature of working at the University of Melbourne is huge casualisation … A lot of people are concerned about insecure work. They are not sure if they are going to get a new contract next semester. We want more secure conditions … better pay rises, an end to restructuring, fair workloads … and a range of other things. We’re all ultimately united as staff, even though professional staff and permanent staff might have different experiences to casuals … we are struggling together to get a better agreement for everyone.”

Rory, casual professional staff (Melbourne Uni)

“I went on strike because staff teaching conditions are student learning conditions. But … [in addition to this] the university should be a place where we model different worlds and better worlds. Staff working conditions are part of these worlds. Especially as a trans worker at the university, I feel that there are worlds that we can model that are more accepting, more radical, and more friendly to all workers. I think the university, even though they talk big game in their promotional materials, does a really bad job of this for their trans workers and queer staff. I think we deserve a university free of transphobia, free of bigotry, with gender transition and affirmation leave, and with protections for workers of all backgrounds. I think these issues which affect trans and gender diverse workers at the university affect all workers and we all benefit from these kinds of protections when we work together to fight for them.”

Willow, casual academic staff (Melbourne Uni)

“We’re striking because of the massive workload increases we’ve had that just seem to continue to increase. We’re expected to do more and more and more. And then we also have the casualisation and people are on very insecure contracts. Our wonderful amazing sessional staff dropped everything during the pandemic and did so much to look after the students’ education and health and well-being. And yet they were treated so poorly when their contracts end, having to fight and beg to get the next one. I’m here for them as well too, because I rely on an amazing teaching team and I want to see them as they start out in their academic careers, that they actually get some job security … so they can actually have a good and fruitful academic career. [It is] a struggle for the future of our system. … We’re also fighting to be renumerated for the hard work that we put in … so that we don’t not fall behind [increases in the cost-of-living]”.

Joanne, permanent academic staff (Monash Uni)

Can you tell me about the restructures happening at Melbourne Uni?

“The Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences has been merged with the Faculty of Science, which left a lot of people stressed and unsure of their job security … and is going to lead to lay-offs. At the same time, they laid 80 people off at the Werribee Veterinary Hospital which Melbourne University ran until last year, selling the teaching resources off to a private contractor. This is just the last in a string of stressful restructures that seem to occur almost every year if not more often. The union key claim on that is limiting [the university to] one restructure for the length of the agreement.”

Callum (Melbourne Uni)

What was your experience on strike today?

“I am pumped. It was so good! We had to retreat from the rain a little bit, ended up overfilling a building, and spilling out into the courtyard outside and then we had a march [of] 500-600+ people that joined an even bigger rally outside Trades Hall, where there were [also] too many people to fit [inside] and had to spill out onto the street again, and then do a big vote. The combination of numbers, union strength, principles of grassroots democracy … I’m really, really tired, but I also enjoyed myself immensely.”

Callum (Melbourne Uni)

“I came from a long way down the Mornington Peninsula but it was important to come together in solidarity and support each other.”

Joanne (Monash Uni)

What was your experience of building the strike within your workplace?

“We are exponentially building in my [workplace] where, although we are not starting from the most density, there’s excitement, there’s curiosity, I saw more people out here than I thought I would. I’ve been having lots of conversations about how we can balance accessibility for as many staff as possible and disruption for the university … I have not come across a single person who is on management’s side. Everyone is keenly frustrated. Today was good, but we’re going to try to turn that frustration into more disruptive actions.”

Callum (Melbourne Uni)

“If industrial action does escalate through to the end of June … [the university] might try to make an argument about student experience … In reality, students and the staff [are] all in this together. Students and staff should fight together, struggle for better things for everyone.”

Rory (Melbourne Uni)

By Tom Fiebig

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