Workers at Charles Sturt University (CSU), spread across six campuses in regional NSW, have been organising to stop job cuts since last year.
National Tertiary Education Union’s branch president Helen Masterman-Smith told Green Left how university workers across the country are learning as they campaign against management's job cuts.
“The branch hadn’t usually planned more than a year ahead, at best. Now we have a 3–5 year plan to strengthen the branch to advance workers' rights like job security and workload/workplace health and safety protections, including being strike-ready before bargaining,” Masterman-Smith said.
The plan is to implement “deep organising”, which aims to create a structure of union representation throughout the workforce that draws the vast majority of workers to join the union and become active. This “does take time”, Masterman-Smith said. “You also need to take opportunities when they come.”
“I’m so glad we spent 6–12 months preparing to implement deep organising before the coronavirus. Now we’re using all the pressures thrown at us to organise towards our goals, each week.”
Organisationally, the branch’s jump-off point was similar to universities around the country. Union members were about 15% of the total CSU workforce, which is almost 3000.
In 2019, the branch recruited and trained nearly 100 members, some as work area coordinators, to not only talk with members, but with all staff. This is one of the branch’s systematic methods to gather information.
Masterman-Smith explained: “In each unit, we’ve done our mapping and sought out members to be our delegates. We’ve made the best of a bad situation in building our strength.” As the jobs campaign heated up in recent months, the branch held workplace meetings and mapping workshops that encouraged workers to join. The CSU branch is one of the faster growing branches of the NTEU.
“With COVID-19, there’s been a lot of chaos. The deep organising work has raised trust in our branch and people are more tuned in to what the union is saying.”
At CSU, discussion over the past year suggested campuses may close. Union members’ agitation, media work and opposition from communities where the campuses are located seems to have helped elicit a public back-down by management.
However, CSU management then announced seven separate change management plans affecting 17 professional and technical work areas. It also stated that 110 jobs would be lost through forced redundancies.
A second round of academic redundancies will start in October.
Branch members disputed all of this. “The branch ran all-staff meetings and other discussions around job cuts in every area. The necessity of job cuts was strongly opposed due to understaffing of critical operational and student needs,” Masterman-Smith said.
“Although our enterprise agreement job protections are not as strong as some others have, workers in 16 areas formally disputed the lack of workload impact information in the proposals for change and decided to seek majority support for a petition on union rights, work intensification, job security measures and voluntary redundancy options.
These and other actions contributed to 17% membership growth in 3 months.
Members pressed for an open dispute meeting with management in front of all staff. This meant hundreds of workers were able to understand the union perspective and management could be questioned directly
Compared with past dispute processes where union representatives met behind closed doors with managers, Masterman-Smith said that “more difficult questions were asked and the format forced more candid answers. There were members, who were initially shy about saying things, who started to speak up.”
She said it reduced workers’ fear and set an important precedent for the branch’s push for open enterprise bargaining sessions next year, in line with deep organising principles. Member participation was also facilitated via the branch’s own online collaboration site to compile submissions on the restructuring.
As well as being the first experience of union collectivism for many new members, the whole process has saved 10–15 positions so far, organised job-share arrangements and prevented more than 90 forced redundancies.
Masterman-Smith is glad that only a few members have been lost so far. “We are now redirecting that energy back into our delegate-building work and strike preparedness ahead of bargaining for stronger job protections next year.”
The exclusion of academics from the formal restructure consultation was also disputed. Masterman-Smith said: “Eventually management was forced to meet with all CSU academics, even though it gave them less than 2 working hour’s notice. That didn’t matter: 440 academics came.”
The organising focus is now on academic workload breaches as part of the resistance to impending job cuts. The branch also has plans to strengthen these rights next year.
Worker-community links that the branch is mapping were also deployed. Their impact was reflected in opposition from local parliamentarians to the job cuts and campus closures.