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, in a significant escalation of the campaign. 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 endorsed the branch committee’s motion to accept management’s offer.
Nevertheless, the union is in a position of strength. The NTEU signed up over 300 new members during the campaign and defied a university management determined to put profits, corporate investments and international league tables before staff and students.
University staff faced a management determined to push through a severe attack on working and teaching conditions. This followed its attempt to arbitrarily sack 340 staff members in 2012, halted by the largest staff-student campaign on an Australian university campus in years.
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 creative actions 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 protect our conditions and win our demands 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 its attempt to remove 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 over 50 per cent of undergraduate teaching at universities across the sector is done by casual staff.
Under the new agreement, unions will continue to represent staff and have maintained rights to organise on campus, which will be critical in winning permanent jobs for casuals 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 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. At just over 2.8 per cent a year we avoided a pay cut—and also won a cash bonus ($540) and additional paid leave and training days, but only for permanent staff. But the final wage offer is less than staff deserve and is less than the 4 per cent won at Curtin University, Edith Cowan and Central Queensland.
In the debate on whether to accept 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 meant the union was well placed to secure our demands for a decent pay rise for all staff, including casuals. Despite this, a significant majority of members, happy with the conditions already won and satisfied their pay wouldn’t go backwards, accepted the assessment of the branch leadership that the campaign on pay had reached its limits.
Even so, the union is now in a strong position to fight back against future attacks and follow through on our wins.
This year witnessed the highest levels of industrial action at Sydney University in decades. Activist networks that developed in local workplaces and among casual workers will strengthen ongoing campaigning. We showed how to stand up against Abbott government budget cuts or attacks on unions.
Higher education faces looming funding cuts that managements will again use to try to cut jobs and increase casualisation. Sydney University staff were able to fight back against these trends only 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