Solidarity spoke to Melissa Slee, who is running for Victorian division Secretary in the National Tertiary Education Union elections about what’s at stake for the union

Melissa Slee

The termination of Murdoch University’s agreement was one of the defining events in the most recent round of bargaining. What did you think of the NTEU’s response?

The NTEU over many years has failed to adapt to the dramatic changes on the campuses and allowed its power and numbers to go into sharp decline. In this context, the NTEU’s response to Murdoch could only ever be limited to damage control. The termination of the Murdoch agreement has been a long time in the making. Twenty years ago the sector was nearly 100 per cent government funded and universities worked in relative harmony. Since the mid-1990s government funding has been massively slashed and replaced with the “free” market where campuses operate like warring fiefdoms in fierce competition with each other for income. In that environment, an individual campus like Murdoch can be easily captured by neo-liberal hawks with an extreme agenda. Murdoch is a big wake up call for the NTEU.

Do you think the union’s effort to finalise agreements quickly in an effort to isolate Murdoch nationally resulted in unnecessary concessions?

The rush to cut a quick deal on the campuses to somehow “isolate” Murdoch was a deeply flawed strategy and luckily only partially implemented! There was no evidence that the neo-liberal zealots at Murdoch gave a tinker’s cuss what happened at other campuses least of all those on the Eastern states. Predictably, Murdoch were undeterred by this “strategy”.

Many universities have agreed new enterprise bargaining agreements in the last 12 months. Do you think there were campuses where conditions were unnecessarily lost?

Definitely. Here in Victoria, Deakin and La Trobe have suffered serious setbacks on casualisation, academic workloads, job security and hours of work. It was argued that both campuses had aggressive senior managements. My response: sure, so where was the campaign? To agree to cuts in conditions and not even give members an opportunity to organise to defend themselves is not just poor strategy, it’s immoral.

What kind of approach do you think is needed to build union membership and improve pay and conditions?

Back to basics! Organising. Organising around issues that matter to our members, big and small, and making ourselves visible and relevant. From these campaigns we will grow and we will find new leaders to further build our strength. Enterprise Bargaining campaigns are the perfect opportunity for this. Those campuses that organised got the best outcomes.

Casualisation has become a major issue across the university sector. How can the NTEU address this?

The NTEU needs to both defend the academic profession and get the entire profession to turn its attention to the existential threat posed by ludicrous levels of casualisation. There is hot debate within the NTEU about this. Some are promoting low quality teaching and “academic tutor” roles to casuals. At RMIT and Sydney Uni among others, we have insisted on genuine career opportunities for casual academics to full academic roles strengthening the profession and improving staffing levels for everyone.

Do you want to say anything about “Change the Rules” campaign?

Many OECD nations have effective rules that make the abuse of insecure work contracts illegal. 120,000 people marched to Change the Rules in Melbourne on 9 May. The next step is for a mass mobilisation attached to a recommended piece of legislation that will outlaw unnecessary insecure work.

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