The University of Melbourne is a flashpoint in the wave of industrial action against job insecurity, wage theft, overwork, and profit-seeking in the academy. Now staff are preparing an all-university strike — and the outcome may be decisive for the sector.

Members of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) at the University of Melbourne are preparing for yet another weeklong strike. Pictured: Queen’s College at the university. (Wikimedia Commons)

In August, when staff at the University of Melbourne struck for a week, it was one of the longest industrial actions on that campus since 1856, when stonemasons working on the Old Arts building downed tools to demand an eight-hour day.

Now, after a little over a month, members of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) at the university are preparing for another weeklong strike. Set to begin on Monday, October 2, this new round of industrial action marks an escalation in the union’s campaign. While the first strike saw union members from only seven areas stop work, the second one will cover the entire university.

At the same time, the university has faced intense public scrutiny from the Fair Work Ombudsman over wage theft. Although the university has already paid back over $45 million in stolen wages, the investigation is ongoing.

Prior to the first strike, management had already given ground to many of the union’s demands, including with a promise to reduce the proportion of staff employed on a casual basis. However, according to the NTEU, although bargaining has been underway for over a year, there has been little real progress. This impasse — combined with the ongoing wage-theft investigations — has made for a volatile atmosphere among union members.

Jacobin spoke with two rank-and-file NTEU activists from the university, Emily Hope (Libraries and Scholarly Services) and Abigail Fisher (Arts), to find out about the campaign so far and what they hope to win as a result of next week’s industrial action.

Joshua Barnes

What are the union’s main demands?

Emily Hope

One of the main things that we want is a reduction of casual work — we’re demanding that a minimum of 80 percent of jobs at the university must be secure. Other key claims include protection against redundancies, a solution to the workload crisis, and a fair pay rise above inflation. On top of that, we are fighting for enforceable First Nations employment targets and paid gender affirmation leave.

Abigail Fisher

We’ve also been fighting to defend working-from-home rights. But, at this point, we’re focusing on these three demands: enforceable and reasonable workloads, the creation of permanent jobs that include a minimum research allocation for academic staff, and an enforceable commitment to indigenous employment targets.

Joshua Barnes

Can you give a concrete example of what these issues look like for you and your coworkers?

Emily Hope

I work as a casual staff member at one of the libraries on campus. Because we are still living with COVID, paid sick leave is important to many of my casual colleagues. But also, we want to see movement on this from the university because it’s an issue of basic dignity.

Because we are still living with COVID, paid sick leave is important to many of my casual colleagues.

Beyond that, everyone in my team is also a student. And speaking as a student, I’ve seen some of my tutors have breakdowns because they have too many classes, too many students, and not enough time to do their research. Our tutors got us through the pandemic, they were there every step of the way, and I think students feel deeply that the way management treat staff is cheapening our education.

Abigail Fisher

I’m a PhD candidate, and this is my second year as a tutor on a nine-month fixed-term contract. But I started to experience the insecurity of university work before that, when I was an undergraduate. One tutor mentioned marking essays in her car because she didn’t have a space on campus to do her work. Other tutors spoke about cobbling together casual contracts both inside and outside the sector, particularly over the summer.

Later, I saw tutors of mine participate in the wage-theft campaign and receive thousands of dollars in back pay. I remember thinking that some of that money was stolen while they were marking my essays — and if they hadn’t fought to get it back, the university would still have it.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the kind of bottom-up organizing happening around wage theft was unusual within the NTEU. That’s what laid the foundations for the growth and increasing militancy of the branch today.

Joshua Barnes

Can you talk a bit more about the organizing strategy at the branch?

Abigail Fisher

The NTEU doesn’t have a great record of fighting for casuals — or for other marginalized workers for that matter, including indigenous people. But over the past five years, there’s been a real shift here at the Melbourne NTEU branch. Insecure workers put themselves at the front and center of our branch, developing networks, having one-on-one conversations, and analyzing the material conditions of their workplace.

Our strategy has involved mobilizing around issues affecting casual and fixed-term staff, and in some cases, we’ve embraced direct-action tactics and “minority” actions, like protests or area-specific strikes. This approach has built a membership that looks different to a traditional NTEU branch. And it’s helped the branch grow — many of our hundreds of new members are casuals or other marginalized workers who might not have trusted the union to fight for them in the past.

Emily Hope

We are seeing this happen in other places too. I’ve been keeping up a bit with the strikes organized by the United Auto Workers (UAW) in the United States, and the similarities are interesting. A lot of the workers on strike there are on temporary contracts and don’t have access to paid sick leave or other rights. But the experience of precariousness has made a lot of workers more class conscious — by relying on casual labor so heavily, US car companies have created a real headache for themselves. The same contradiction is apparent at the University of Melbourne, where over half the workforce is insecurely employed.

Joshua Barnes

How has university management responded to your actions so far?

Abigail Fisher

They have been fairly contemptuous. During our strike in August, for example, we held a rally out the front of a building on campus where Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell was meeting university executives. He tried to avoid us by leaving through the back door — but a group of us were there and confronted him.

University management has been fairly contemptuous.

Emily Hope

Before we confronted Duncan, we had been hearing from workers in Stop 1 — the university’s administrative support center — about how overwork makes it difficult to support vulnerable students.

So when the vice-chancellor tried to leave, I told him that we were striking and losing a week’s pay because we can’t take it any longer, and that we need to see improvements. He responded to say, “that’s your prerogative,” and to tell us that by striking, we were giving up 2 percent of the 4 percent pay rise that the university already gave us last year. In other words, we should be grateful for what we’ve got. It shows how out of touch he is with the cost of living today — remember that he receives a yearly salary of 1.5 million AUD. His response was as telling as his attempted backdoor escape.

Joshua Barnes

In August, workers in seven areas of the university struck for a week. What was the experience of that action like? And how did it affect negotiations?

Abigail Fisher

Many of us have no memory of anything like that. After all, the labor movement in Australia was defanged by the Prices and Incomes Accord before we were even born. So that action was historic for our branch and for the Australian tertiary sector — and the collective experience of withdrawing our labor power for a full week was powerful.

The strike also showed how much community has been built among rank-and-file organizers over the past five years. Working at the university is a very isolating experience, particularly for people on insecure contracts. Striking, organizing teach-ins and rallies, and attending meetings where we could listen to coworkers talk about their experiences — that was transformative for some of us.

Emily Hope

And we know that our first strike had an impact on management because after it, they finally put forward a proposal on secure jobs. Their proposal didn’t go far enough, however, and in classic University of Melbourne style, was packed with “Get out of Jail Free Cards” that could be used to get management off the hook.

Striking, organizing teach-ins and rallies, and attending meetings where we could listen to coworkers talk about their experiences — that was transformative for some of us.

Even so, the strike managed to move them at the negotiating table. It was the first time they were speaking on our terms rather than us having to speak on their terms. But, as Abigail said, it’s not enough, and we’re prepared to fight for more.

Joshua Barnes

On that point, why and how was the decision made to go on strike again?

Abigail Fisher

When management failed to present a proposal on job security at the bargaining table after the first strike, our bargaining team walked out of the room. Later that week, at our biggest members’ meeting all year, we learned that management had just offered a target of 75 percent secure work. This was game-changing because, up until that point, they had refused to negotiate on secure work. However, the offer did not include a minimum research allocation for academic staff, and they had no proposal on workload protection.

So, the meeting made a collective decision to call another weeklong strike — and this time, we decided to extend the strike to the whole branch, rather than limiting it to particular work areas. We built a caveat into the decision to strike that we would call it off if there was significant movement from management. But as yet they haven’t given us anything significant — so it looks like we’re going out again.

Joshua Barnes

These strikes are occurring in the context of growing industrial unrest in universities across Australia, as well as in the United States and UK. Why do you think there’s more industrial action happening at universities?

Emily Hope

In some ways, management are their own worst enemy because they have created an underclass of workers at a very rich institution. For a long time, casual work was seen as a form of initiation — but for people on their tenth, twentieth, or thirtieth contract at the same institution, that’s getting harder to believe. That experience has radicalized a lot of the staff, and as a consequence, they’ve rejected the more moderate “professional association” style of unionism that the NTEU used to be known for. Instead, they want a fighting union.

What this means is that most people on strike with us in August were young and insecurely employed. It’s significant because previously, younger, insecurely employed workers were seen as “unorganizable” and less likely to be union members. But now, it’s clear that this was an excuse. Instead, what we’ve done reminds me of one of [radical comic artist] Sam Wallman’s artworks, which reads “Drag your union into militancy.” The University of Melbourne NTEU only changed because rank-and-file workers stood together to make it happen.

Joshua Barnes

Have you encountered any obstacles to taking industrial action?

Abigail Fisher

Yes — the fight has been threefold. In a very real sense, this is a struggle with management. But it’s also increasingly a struggle to surpass the draconian restrictions on union activity in Australia.

For many of us, it’s been a massive learning curve to understand the industrial relations landscape. Beginning with the Prices and Incomes Accord in the 1980s, successive governments have introduced legislation that severely constrains unions’ power to take industrial action. Ultimately this means that there’s a significant legal risk if we strike at certain times in the semester where we might have a real effect on the operations of this university, such as the marking period. The laws governing industrial action are there to protect management and profits.

The laws governing industrial action are there to protect management and profits.

The third fight has been within our own branch. It’s been a challenge to organize such a stratified workforce, and that stratification has played a role in internal struggles that have been laid bare in difficult conversations and difficult meetings. However, we’ve also seen massive solidarity between permanent, fixed-term, and casual staff members, as well as between academic and professional staff.

Joshua Barnes

As the second strike approaches next week, what do you hope to see from management? And what will happen if management remains unresponsive?

Emily Hope

Everything we’re asking for is within the realm of possibility. A secure work proposal without loopholes and a pay rise above inflation are not only what staff deserve, but also what many staff need to stay in the sector.

But my prediction is that in the lead-up to the strike, the university is going to try to divide us. For example, the fact that it gave ground on secure work but not on workloads indicates that it’s trying to drive a wedge between us. And this could exacerbate other divides, for example relating to race, gender, and sexuality. People of color are overrepresented among insecure workers at the university and have been at the forefront of our campaign, as have queer people. The main struggle ahead of us this week is to stand united and overcome these attempts to divide us.

And going forward, I think a lot of union members feel that the union has a stake in issues that go beyond job security or pay, to address crises we all face as workers, like climate change. The union needs to be prepared to fight for these broader societal struggles.

Abigail Fisher

What we’re asking for — properly implemented — is going to cost the university a lot of money. And it can afford it. Both things are true: our demands are reasonable and they are possible. And many of us are prepared to strike again this year.

But regardless of the outcome, we have another round of bargaining in two years’ time, so we are also looking ahead to the future. We have delegate networks in place, and we are training each other to map our workplaces and engage in structured organizing conversations that help us to encourage our fellow workers to take action and work through any objections that arise. Whatever happens in this round of bargaining, we are changing the landscape of what’s possible for union members in the Australian tertiary sector.


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