WORKERS AT five universities in Melbourne—Melbourne, Monash, Swinburne, RMIT and Deakin, plus a Hawthorn college —went out on strike on Thursday, May 21.
Staff at the University of Tasmania also walked out in what was said to be the first strike there in 20 years.
The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) is currently campaigning for enterprise bargaining agreements that would ensure substantial pay increases, manageable workloads and re-establish the position of the union within university structures after years of Howard government attacks.
Support from members of the NTEU was high overall, with reports of half-empty carparks. Swinburne’s Hawthorn campus, for instance, was apparently deserted.
There was plenty of solidarity. The best came from construction workers, who refused to cross picket lines on three sites at RMIT and one at Swinburne—where the action stopped a concrete pour!
The MUA had a delegation of officials at the city centre rally, and there were messages of support from other unions, such as the NUW and AEU. Students joined the picket lines, which were endorsed by the Victorian Trades Hall Council.
About 800 strikers rallied outside the State Library at lunchtime, including about 250 who marched down from Melbourne Uni.
The best speech came from Verity Burgmann, Politics Professor at Melbourne Uni. Verity painted a vivid picture of the way neoliberalism had white-anted higher education.
The talk from the NTEU state secretary was that the action wouldn’t stop here. Ballot results at all universities were very good (including La Trobe, which balloted too late to join the action), which means there’s a clear mandate.
About 60 per cent of members voted, with about 80 per cent support for striking. But now there will be an argument over how and when to turn that result into more action.
Activists are now discussing how to maintain the momentum. There’s a warning note from Victoria Uni, which late last year and early this year was leading the way with industrial action to stop a jobs massacre.
The branch there decided to suspend action (and didn’t join the statewide strike) because negotiations were going well—but talks have dragged on, jobs are going and union meetings are shrinking.
At RMIT, NTEU members have followed up the strike with an indefinite ban on releasing exam results, a ban on general staff working more than agreed hours, and a protest outside the university’s prestigious Founder’s Day Dinner, with a guest list of politicians and “captains of industry”.
At other unis, bans are likely to be implemented soon. The Melbourne Uni branch will be protesting outside the launch of the university’s high-profile Festival of Ideas.
RMIT’s bans are already biting hard in Singapore, China and Malaysia (RMIT has some 15,000 students offshore in Asia) and a union media release to the Singapore media has put management in a spin.
The NTEU branches in Victoria face a particular problem with anti-union laws.
The effect of ballots for protected action will be wiped out on June 30, when the Liberals’ Workplace Relations Act finally dies. Labor’s new law requires new ballots after July 1.
To maintain bans, NTEU branches will need to be prepared to break the law to cover the gap between June 30 and coverage from a new ballot.
Sydney University has set the pay and conditions benchmark with 18 per cent over three years plus a tight limit on the number of academic casuals, despite losing tens of millions of dollars in a falling share market.
It’s rumoured that Education Minister Julia Gillard has warned Vice-Chancellors elsewhere not to follow the Sydney path.
Meanwhile, Melbourne Uni is planning to buy a nearby Ford dealership for more than $77 million. RMIT is spending more than $500 million on new and revamped buildings.
The NTEU needs to continue to hammer home the message that universities must put their staff before expensive capital works programs and property acquisition. That in turn will benefit students, who lose out if classes are too big or lecturers too stressed.
We face arrogant and headstrong managements, who are turning universities more and more into heartless factories.
The NTEU’s only weapon is its members’ determination to win rights and respect, ongoing positions and job security. As we approach second semester, and branches in other states move into battle, we will need more coordinated strike action to win new, decent agreements.
By NTEU members