An ABC of the USyd strike

In honour of Mark Scott, the new Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney, after his gutting of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (the ABC).

A is for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders—I’d like to acknowledge the Gadigal people on whose unceded lands the main campus of the University of Sydney stands. USyd actually occupies the lands of 15 different Indigenous groups. I’d also like to acknowledge that University management needs to create enforceable targets for First Nations jobs, which should at least match population density. 3% of the broader population identifies as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Only around 1% of the University’s workers are First Nations people, which hasn’t improved in over a decade.

B is for Bargaining in Bad Faith—According to the NTEU, for 9 months University management have not bargained in good faith, agreeing to none of the negotiations over workload creep, casualisation, a pay rise, and maintaining the right to 40% research quotas for academics, among other issues the NTEU has proposed to fix in the new Enterprise Agreement (EA).

C is for Casualisation—I was a casual for 6 years. Casualisation at USyd has been increasing for decades (casuals now make up 52% of the Uni’s workforce, and if you include fixed-term contracts it’s up at 74%). Casuals have no say in operations, nor their own working conditions, unless they kick up a fuss and risk being labelled a troublemaker and not being rehired. We all know that casuals get less Super, and no sick pay, that they just have to work sick if they want to be rehired. We all know that casual employment is used by the University as cheap labour. So-called ‘SMART’ teaching has entrenched itself into the casual work model: tutorial sizes have exploded in some cases to more than 90 students, forcing lone casual tutors to become lecturers, coordinators and website managers while only being paid the minimum tutorial rates. Admin pay has simply been deleted from contracts in some departments. Marking rates are being contorted to save even more money. Casuals are specifically instructed not to reply to student emails, not to attend lectures because lecture attendance is unpaid, not to spend any more than 10 minutes marking a student’s essay. But how can any casual do their job properly without spending time on these things? For professional casual staff, their KPIs are being rigorously micro-managed but not changed to reflect their burgeoning workloads. In short, wage theft conditions are systemic. And those casuals in a position to apply for conversion to more secure, continuing roles are being refused in record numbers. It took me an entire year, a Kafkaesque struggle with management, and a trip to Fair Work to fight for and win a part-time conversion, and I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Management are avoiding their obligations to convert casuals to ongoing positions and reduce casualisation under the Enterprise Agreement. Since the pandemic, tens of thousands of casuals have lost their jobs nationwide, jobs many of them relied on for their livelihoods. But these figures aren’t counted in the official figures of 40,000 job losses across the sector. Casual job losses are not considered important enough to record, and yet casual workers’ livelihoods have become the most important financial wind-break for executive management to avoid apparently going into deficit—‘just cut more casuals’, management say, even when faculties are in surplus. Why are casuals always the first casualties and not executive salaries, bloated marketing budgets, exorbitant external contractors, expensive new online systems that don’t work, and multi-million-dollar new buildings? In the last year, executive management have been presented with 1 survey about casuals’ precarious conditions and 2 audit reports (‘The Tip of the Iceberg’ and ‘Stealing Time’) of the underpayment of casuals at USyd (all researched and prepared by the USyd Casuals Network), and dozens of detailed individual underpayment claims (submitted to the University by the NTEU), and management have dismissed these out of hand. It’s like casuals conveniently don’t exist, and yet it is convenience that is the reason casuals are hired in the first place. Casuals are told that’s just the way it is—by managers and by permanent staff punching down—that you have to suffer through it to make a career. Many have put up with that and worked extra hard to create a proper learning environment for students; firstly because casuals are the ones on the ground engaging with students face-to-face, and secondly because they still hold dear the values of education and the ‘good university’ (see Raewyn Connell). Casuals are staff members, they are academics, they are professionals, too. They are humans with human desires for certainty and dignity in their work. On the other hand …

D is for Dialectics—Does it even matter that a manager can be a ‘good person’ when at the same time they enforce restructures and redundancies, austerity measures, mass cuts to courses and casual labour under the pretense of the pandemic, jeopardising thousands of people’s livelihoods? How is it relevant that they also have ‘a good heart’? What good are dialectics when ‘civility’ and ‘collegiality’ are invoked as a weapon to silence workers who dare speak up to challenge these ‘measures’?

E is for Enterprise Agreement—the document that enshrines how the University and its workplace practices are governed. E is also for the erasure of an egalitarian workplace and equitable working conditions. E is for the exploitation of casual and precarious staff, the majority of whom are women, gender-diverse and workers from migrant minorities. E is for e-learning and workload creep. E is for ennui. I’m so fucking bored of being exploited and watching my colleagues be exploited and feeling like there’s nothing that can be done about it.

F is for Funding—or lack thereof. The last few Liberal governments have been waging a war on the left and on Higher Education, stripping funding from the sector again and again. Their latest budget included even more cuts. I hope the new Labor government can turn this dire situation around and restore funding to the sector. [Hey Albo, why not make education free again, the way Whitlam did?] In the meantime, please, if you can, donate to the Strike Fund so that casuals and other precarious workers can recoup the wages they’re forfeiting for going on strike.

G is for Gaslighting—In two recent emails, the Provost (and former Dean of Arts and Social Sciences) Annamarie Jagose has suggested that management’s proposals for the EA will widely benefit staff. This is just not the case. Management’s proposals do nothing to ease endemic overwork and workload creep. In reality, the opposite will occur: their intention to abolish workload monitoring committees can only lead to further work intensification. To quote President of the NTEU, Nick Riemer: ‘In abolishing the right to 40/40/20 and forcing academics to negotiate workloads annually with their supervisor, the agreement being proposed by management enshrines the most significant attack on academic staff rights we have ever seen at the University.’ Similarly, management’s proposals on casualisation do nothing to genuinely address insecure work and wage theft. That the Provost wrote to all staff, on behalf of management, to say ‘we are disappointed the NTEU has chosen to take this premature and unnecessary action’ (i.e. go on strike), after 9 months of failed bargaining is a special kind of managerial misrepresentation. This is not to mention more recent cynical emails to staff, insinuating that strikers on the pickets were responsible for the violence that occurred on May 11, which was also not the case—the violence was isolated to a couple of instances and instigated by strikebreakers barging their way through staunch but peaceful NTEU picketers who were adhering to picketing protocols. One incident was instigated by a cowardly student shoulder-barging a senior casual staff member whose head was split open when he hit the ground. Another was of a group of fratboy strikebreakers who deliberately targeted one picket from inside the University grounds, barging through like a scrum. The University should be condemning these specific acts, not using them as a pretense to demand an end to the strikes. The staff on the pickets are trying to have important, democratic conversations on the picket lines with workers and students about the future of the University but management don’t seem to want this to happen. On the other hand, perhaps the handwringing emails from management just prove that the strikes have so far been effective.

H is for Human Resources—who are still not drawing on their resources to be actual humans and pay casuals back for all hours worked, for all the wage theft that has occurred at Sydney Uni. Casual workers are the real human resources working with students on the frontlines of universities.

I is for Inflation—We all need a fair pay rise to match inflation. It’s not that much to ask. The cost of living goes up, so should our wages.

J is for Jim-jams—the recommended attire for teaching the kind of watered-down education that Zoom facilitates. J is also for Jagose—‘the emphasis is on JAR and you drop the final “t” of “ghost”’ (see ‘the complexities of the interpellative moment’).

K is for Kafka—When I was taking industrial action against the University because management refused to honour its obligations to convert me to secure work, I had the opportunity to quote Kafka directly to the Vice-Chancellor at the time, Stephen Garton. I said: ‘I sincerely hope that you will not conform to the actions and inactions of those authorities represented so well in Kafka’s The Castle: “all they did was to guard the distant and invisible interests of distant and invisible masters.”’ And do you know how he replied? He said, ‘That’s my favourite book.’ A book about power, alienation and unresponsive bureaucracy is his favourite book.

L is for Leave—We need indefinite (not one-off) gender transition and affirmation leave that accommodates and understands the needs of gender-diverse workers. 30 days is not enough. Navigating gender is not a one-off occurrence. We also need sick leave for casual workers. Zero is obviously not enough.


M is for Moral Dilemma—Potential strikebreakers (or ‘scabs’) are faced with a moral dilemma at a picket line because a strike is not simply a rally. You can’t opt in or out of choosing a side at your work. Whether you’re a student or a worker at USyd, if you don’t join the strike, you oppose it. You can’t support the strike and its demands but then cross the picket. If you cross it, you’re supporting management. Perhaps the harsh industrial laws in Australia have made people forget the moral clarity of the picket, where there is ‘No room for neoliberal cooptations of identity politics.’

N is for Never let a good crisis go to waste—Management have given us a Masterclass in disaster capitalism. As a result of the pandemic, instead of drawing on their, at the time, $432m war chest, selling land, reducing marketing and outsourcing to exorbitant contractors, so as to save money, the University insisted that various schools and faculties be restructured, which facilitated the cutting of casual staff and a ‘voluntary redundancy program’ for permanent staff. It’s always the pandemic’s fault, apparently, even though enrolments are up and the Uni keeps recording surpluses: its latest Annual Report reveals a $1.04 billion operating surplus and a $1.24 billion ‘future fund’ for rainy days and discretionary spending.

O is for Oligarchs—We all know Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott makes well over a million dollars a year, and that his executive management team of Provost, multiple Deputy Vice-Chancellors, multiple Vice Principals, multiple Pro-Vice-Chancellors, with their own team of lawyers, each rake in huge six-figure salaries. But did you know none of them have taken a pay cut during the pandemic, not even when hundreds of academics and workers became redundant and thousands of casuals were left out to rot? All they did was freeze their bonuses and pay rises for the backend of 2020, i.e. 3-4 months. In the meantime, I’m owed $105,000 of underpayments across the 6 years I was a casual, and there are thousands of others owed backpay too. Do you know how much difference that “small” amount of money, less than one tenth of the Vice-Chancellor’s annual wage, would have made to my life and the lives of my children?

P is for Piecemeal Rates—Management has stated that it doesn’t use piecemeal rates to pay casual workers but this is a putrid lie. A piecemeal rate ‘means the employee gets a pay rate for the amount picked, packed, pruned or made’ (Fair Work Ombudsman). For every essay a casual academic marks, they are paid a puny amount according to the word count (one hour per 4500 words). This exploitation of a piecemeal rate has led to rampant wage theft across the sector. We need pay for all hours worked.

Q is for Quiddity—that which makes a thing what it is. Is the essential nature of the university a socially democratic educational community where academics, workers and students have an equal say in how it operates, or is it a corporate juggernaut governed by oligarchs?

R is for Redundancy—505 people ‘applied’ for voluntary redundancy at USyd during the recent and ongoing restructures. That’s 505 people who decided this workplace is too toxic; 505 people who were ready to give up on jobs they had loved for years. And this is happening right across the sector. All too often, the threat of forced redundancy is dangled like a sword over workers’ heads. ‘If you don’t restructure [i.e. shrink your departments and schools], some of you will have to be made redundant.’ This can’t keep happening.

S is for Scott Rot—I have Scott Rot. Scott Morrison cut back our livelihoods. Mark Scott, after his ‘Hunger Games’ restructure of the ABC, in which he laid off hundreds of workers, has now come to do likely the same at USyd. I can feel it in my cracks. We’ve all got Scott Rot.

T is for Tutorials—Tutorial sizes are far too big. Do we need to give a tutorial to management to get them to understand that large tutorials don’t equal topnotch education?

U is for Union—It’s the only way we can win the fight for better, fairer working conditions: in union.

V is for Vampires—The corporatisation of the University is vampiric, with management sucking every last drop of life from its workers. Historically, holiday, weekend and leave entitlements were won through the withdrawal of labour. By striking, we can change the material conditions under which we’re forced to work.

W is for Wage Theft—To avoid wage theft, you have to become a witch or warlock, or turn into a werewolf to stay up all night to get the work done. Management are wedded to wage theft. It’s baked into the system. Perhaps former VC Michael Spence (‘of the 1%’) dubbed casuals ‘warm bodies’ to make them less human, just another set of numbers, so that wage theft wouldn’t feel wrong to him.

X is for Xena—the dwarf planet, which is larger than Pluto and, with its moon, is the most distant known object in the solar system. That’s how far most casual workers are from secure work and finding a legitimate career path in academia.

Y is for Yes Minister—that British TV comedy about politicians and their weasel words. When imagining executive management triaging the possibility of further cuts to the sector by the Liberal government, I recalled this brief exchange between two ministers from the show:

Minister: In Stage 1, we say, ‘Nothing’s going to happen.’
Other minister: In stage 2, we say, ‘Something is maybe going to happen but we should do nothing about it.’
Minister: In Stage 3, we say, ‘That maybe we should do something about it but there’s nothing we can do.’
Other minister: In Stage 4, we say, ‘Maybe there was something we could have done but it’s too late now.’

Z is for Zero Marks—As an academic who has done my fair share of marking, I give executive management zero marks for the way they have run the University and approached bargaining for the new Enterprise Agreement. On top of everything I’ve already said, let’s assess management’s written work, their emails: management’s emails have not directly addressed the NTEU’s and workers’ concerns about working conditions; their emails are instead circulatory and full of vagaries, jargon, bureaucratic chicanery, excuses, half-truths, empty platitudes and self-fulfilling prophecies. That is not good scholarship. Zero marks! Management are failing us.


[A version of the above ABC was given as a speech at the picket lines of the 48-hour strike at the University of Sydney (USyd) on May 11-12, 2022. The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and staff of the University will be going on strike again on Tuesday 24 May with a focus on First Nations justice claims and secure jobs for all, because University’s executive management, while claiming in external emails that they are bargaining in good faith, are still not negotiating on key NTEU claims regarding enforceable targets for First Nations jobs and broader systemic issues of casualisation, research quotas, and workload intensification, and more. To learn more about the current enterprise bargaining, see the NTEU’s Log of Claims 2021.]

Header image: Associate Professor Ronald Clarke playing the French horn. The other images are from the first day of action.

Toby Fitch

Toby Fitch is Overland’s poetry editor, a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Sydney, and the poet behind RawshockBloomin’ NotionsWhere Only the Sky had Hung Before and, most recently, Sydney Spleen. He is the editor of the poetry anthologies Best of Australian Poems 2021 (co-edited with Ellen van Neerven) and Groundswell: The Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New & Emerging Poets 2007–2020.

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