The higher education sector is in dire straits. Casualisation has skyrocketed, denying job security to over half the university workforce. One in five jobs were lost in the first year of the pandemic, leaving remaining staff to shoulder unmanageable workloads. Hundreds of university courses have been cut in cost-saving measures that targeted humanities departments with particular ideological disdain.
The common denominator behind each chapter in the destruction of the university sector is not the effects of the pandemic, but rather the corporatisation of higher education and government funding cuts set in motion decades ago.
Universities are not self-governed by academics, but overwhelmingly run by corporate boards with leaders plucked from the private sector. The primary allegiance of universities is no longer to teaching and research for the benefit of the public, but to profit-seeking. This business model of education is ill-equipped to weather the effects of a crisis on the staff and student community. The pandemic has merely provided a cover for the restructuring and downsizing university administrations have always wanted.
Now, for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, university staff have been able to take industrial action and fight against these unprecedented attacks.
On 11 and 12 May, staff at the University of Sydney went on a bold 48-hour strike, demanding numerous changes to improve their working conditions. Their key demands include a wage increase, protection against forced redundancies, caps on workloads, gender affirmation leave, an enforceable 3 per cent Indigenous employment target, leave entitlements for casuals, and an end to rampant casualisation.
While the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and university management have been in enterprise bargaining since last year, the latter haven’t capitulated to any of the union’s key demands, particularly around casuals’ rights. At a recent bargaining meeting, management told the union they weren’t even interested in talking about some claims.
The University of Sydney’s hostility to its staff made it necessary to take the strongest possible action to get a fair deal in bargaining, prompting 96 per cent of NTEU members to vote on two days of industrial action, with further strikes anticipated.
Yet, if the situation is so dire at the University of Sydney, why hasn’t there been a strike since 2017? Under the Fair Work Act, staff can only take protected industrial action during negotiations for an Enterprise Agreement, which is renewed every four years. Nick Riemer, President of the Sydney University NTEU branch, believes the system is designed to prevent strike action occurring in the first place.
‘I hadn’t quite appreciated just how the system stacks the deck against unions until I’d seen the nitty gritty of every step of the bureaucracy in detail, how much sand it throws in your face, just how many valuable hours of what could be organising time it wastes, just how many hoops it makes you jump through,’ Dr Riemer said. ‘It is a system that is designed to obstruct unionism, to obstruct the collective exercise of workers’ rights, it is designed to disrupt the fundamental human right, and that is to withdraw your labour.’
When the strike finally came to fruition after a strenuous organising process, hundreds of NTEU members, students and community activists formed picket lines at entrances to the Camperdown and Conservatorium campuses. The NTEU also held a digital picket on Zoom after strikebreaking staff moved classes online to dodge the pickets. Even as torrential rain poured down, the atmosphere was defiant and exuberant. The entrance to campus on City Road was flooded with purple NTEU shirts huddled under umbrellas, and on day two, members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) held a free sausage sizzle in solidarity with the action.
When I asked MUA member Erima Dall what the common struggle was between university staff and waterside workers, she told me that the MUA had also fought—and won—against casualisation: ‘Back in the day before there were permanent jobs and a strong union, wharfies used to stand outside begging to get a day’s work. It’s been a long hard struggle over the century that means we all have permanent jobs now.’
‘The NTEU is fighting for Indigenous employment targets, something which is also really close to the hearts of MUA members. The union pushed really hard to increase Indigenous employment on the wharfs,’ Dall said. ‘If I can give a message from the MUA it’s that you can organise casuals and win paths to permanency through this kind of militant strike action.’
The picket was most militant on the north side of campus at Ross St Gate. On day two, riot police pushed a group of students who were standing arm-in-arm to prevent vehicles from entering. For some, it almost felt like déjà vu, occurring at the same location where Law Professor Simon Rice was tackled to the ground by police during an education protest in 2020.
The atmosphere remained high-spirited in spite of confrontations with strikebreakers determined to cross the line, even if they had to physically barge through people. Students sang and danced to renditions of pop songs with names swapped out for members of university management. Associate Professor of Chemistry Ron Clarke played the French horn as the crowd huddled together in the rain, singing left-wing anthems ‘The Internationale’ and ‘Bella Ciao’.
Fire trucks and buses driving past beeped their horns in accord with the picket throughout the day, and a group of high school students who had planned to tour the University received an impromptu lecture on staff working conditions by a casual member, ultimately deciding not to cross the picket. Most university students who came for class were similarly dissuaded. Campus hadn’t looked so empty since the lockdowns.
I asked Professor Clarke what brought him out on strike. He discussed the importance of the 40:40:20 model that provides a balance between teaching and research, and is currently under attack. ‘For me, as an academic, it’s good to do the teaching because it helps me in my research and it’s good for students because they get a feel of what’s going on in real research,’ he said.
In their enterprise bargaining log of claims, management at Sydney wants to create more teaching-only positions because they generate more profit than research. However, the NTEU is concerned that scrapping 40:40:20 would obstruct pathways for casual conversion to permanent roles and deteriorate the quality of education.
Professor Clarke said that, compared to the past, decisions are now being made in a top-down fashion without much democratic say for staff: ‘People in admin should think a little bit about all their decisions … Are they doing something that will support teaching? Are they doing something that will support research? If it’s not going to do either of those—the two jobs of the university—they should forget it.’
‘It used to be that academics would make a sacrifice and go into admin for a certain period and then go back and do their research again. But now we have professional admin people coming in. I liked the old system, the collegial system,’ he said.
Students’ Representative Council Education Officer Lia Perkins was one of the main student organisers of the strike. In the weeks leading up, activists from the Education Action Group visited classes across campus to speak about why students should support the campaign, and executed banner drops above campus thoroughfares to increase awareness of the strike, bringing the majority of students on board with its cause.
Perkins told me: ‘Management have been saying that it’s not making a difference, that it’s still business as usual, but anyone on campus can see that’s not the case. They’re really trying to downplay the strength and importance of the strike.’
Among students, the NTEU’s demand for an end to casualisation is recognised as especially important. Not only do students witness first-hand the unpaid hours casual tutors put in for our education, but as young people, broader trends toward casualisation and job insecurity directly affect us as workers. Securing better rights around casualisation at universities could have flow-on effects across the economy.
Shamefully, casual staff now make up 52 per cent of the workforce at USyd and are disrespected at an institutional level. Their precarious position forces them to reapply for their jobs every six months; they are underpaid due to an exploitative piece rate model that underestimates how much time it takes to mark essays and prepare tutorials. Casuals are denied paid sick leave, paid domestic violence leave, and parental leave.
Perkins said: ‘I’ve had so many casual tutors willing to talk about essays after class or give notes and notes of feedback. I’ve had a tutor who did a tutorial from his hospital bed because he wasn’t going to be paid otherwise. That is really going above and beyond in unpaid work to give us the education we deserve, and a lot of them are out on strike today.’
For casual staff, going on strike may mean sacrificing pay for a week’s rent or living expenses, which is why they are often used as strikebreakers. But the long-term wins possible through collective action make it worthwhile.
Just days after USyd staff went on strike, the NTEU at University of Technology Sydney and Western Sydney University also voted to initiate industrial action after several months of enterprise bargaining. Across New South Wales, the first half of 2022 saw waves of industrial action across the public sector, with nurses, midwives, teachers, and public transport workers on strike against the NSW Perrottet government. The short window for change opened by enterprise bargaining means tertiary education staff now have an opportunity to join in a similar fight.
If the NTEU’s demands have seen no progress at the next bargaining meeting, staff have voted to strike again on 24 May, with a focus on better conditions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff. ‘The question is not ‘will the strike go ahead?’; the question is ‘will management give us what we need to be able to say we can stop striking?’,’ Dr Riemer said.
It seems only a miracle would make management capitulate to the union’s claims by 24 May. But staff and students have had enough and will come out again in bigger numbers until we win. Going on strike is about more than enterprise bargaining. It’s about a long-term vision for a free education system that is fought for on the streets. It’s about better conditions for all workers across the economy. It’s a demonstration that we—not administration—are the university, because we have the power to shut it down.
You can donate to the NTEU’s strike fund for casual and low-income staff here.
Image: Aman Kapoor