After seven days of strike action this year Sydney University staff have won a deal that reduces casualisation, protects and strengthens existing conditions and avoids a pay cut.
Members were set to strike again for three days in October. But management, desperate to avoid yet another shutdown of the campus, made a last minute pay offer finally bringing wages in line with inflation. With management on the back foot, the union could have secured a better pay deal for staff, particularly casual staff. But a meeting of over 300 NTEU members agreed to accept the offer.
University staff faced a management determined to push through a severe attack on working conditions and put profits, corporate investments and international league tables before staff and students. This followed its attempt to arbitrarily sack 340 staff members in 2012, halted by a major staff-student campaign.
Initially management wanted to remove the union from campus and abolish anti-discrimination and intellectual freedom clauses. They tried to remove workload classifications that are essential for guaranteeing academic staff research time and protecting general staff against ever-increasing workloads. Job security and sick leave provisions were also on the chopping block.
With strong support from students, staff took 24 and 48 hour strikes, picketed the university open day, targeted the Senate with protests and were ready to pull off a three-day strike. Strike action immediately saw results, with each strike extracting new concessions from management. Staff quickly realised that to win we needed to disrupt the everyday functioning of the university and damage the reputation of the Vice Chancellor and senior management through industrial action.
In March, the mere threat of the first strike at Sydney University in ten years forced management to back down on removing intellectual freedom clauses. Our most significant win came when the NTEU secured 120 ongoing teaching and research positions for casual staff. This will reduce casualisation by 25 per cent through providing a pathway to permanent employment. Currently casual staff perform over 50 per cent of undergraduate teaching at Australian universities.
Under the new agreement, unions will continue to represent staff and have maintained rights to organise on campus, which will be critical in enforcing the agreement and resisting anti-union moves from the Abbott government. More transparent and equitable review processes will increase job security, making it harder for the university to again attempt mass sackings, and implement federal funding cuts at the expense of jobs. We maintained workload limits and sick leave entitlements and also gained Indigenous employment targets, important career development opportunities for general staff and domestic violence leave.
Having conceded to our demands on conditions, management attempted to impose a real pay cut.
Given the hard fought campaign, the outcome at Sydney Uni was going to be a benchmark for the rest of the sector. Lower paid staff facing higher than average living costs in Sydney in particular needed a decent pay rise. There was also a strong sense staff deserved a larger share of the university’s $137 million surplus that they created, but was being spent on six-figure bonuses for senior management and other corporate priorities.
The university blinked, increasing their offer by 0.5 per cent. But the final wage offer is less than staff deserve. At just over 2.8 per cent a year we avoided a pay cut—and also won a cash bonus and additional paid leave and training days, but only for permanent staff. This is less than the 4 per cent won at Curtin University, Edith Cowan and Central Queensland.
In the debate on the pay deal, there was a general recognition that management’s offer was substandard. The meeting heard arguments from rank and file members that the threat of a three-day strike and rolling industrial action had the union well placed to secure our full demands. Despite this, a significant majority of members, happy with the conditions won and satisfied their pay wouldn’t go backwards, accepted the branch leadership’s assessment that the campaign on pay had reached its limits.
But the union is now in a strong position to fight back against future attacks and follow through on our wins.
The NTEU signed up over 300 new members during the campaign and developed activist networks in local workplaces and among casual workers. Higher education faces looming funding cuts that managements will again use to try to cut jobs and increase casualisation. Our campaign showed how to stand up against this and against the Abbott government.
Sydney University staff were able to fight back because we took seven days of strike action, underpinned by an alternative vision of public universities—where quality education is put before profits, and staff and students, not corporate managers, collectively and democratically make decisions.
By Freya Bundey and Gareth Bryant