In the lead-up to National Sorry Day and National Reconciliation Week, University of Sydney (USyd) staff took historic industrial action on May 24.
For the first time in an Australian university, we were on strike for justice at work for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as the focus of our campaign for improved rights at work for everyone.
Organised by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), this was the third strike day at the university in two weeks. The fact that industrial action on this scale is happening speaks to the deep institutional crisis gripping USyd.
This crisis is obvious to anyone who looks beyond the university’s glossy marketing, and is not limited to Indigenous staff.
Symptomatic of the desperate state of the higher education sector more broadly, it concerns every aspect of the university’s operations, with First Nations employees the most seriously affected.
Most deeply, it is a crisis of job security. Today, more than half the workforce at the university is employed casually, without normal workplace rights. The picture is similar or worse at other universities. Those with ongoing jobs are seriously overworked and under constant threat of redundancy.
Staff are being pushed to the limit, made to compensate for structural defects that university management are responsible but not answerable for. Widespread wellbeing and mental health problems are increasingly forcing dedicated academic and professional staff out of the sector.
First Nations colleagues bear the brunt. The University of Sydney (USyd) is not a welcoming or culturally safe environment for First Nations people. The proportion of the workforce constituted by First Nations people has not grown for a decade.
Structural inequities at the university affect everyone, and Indigenous staff most of all. The root cause is not just financial, even though successive federal governments have scandalously underfunded universities for decades. The new government must commit to a rescue package for the sector immediately.
But along with austerity, universities’ malaise is due to the ascendancy of a class of executives with little understanding of or interest in universities’ mission or the staff who fulfil it.
USyd staff favour real measures to increase the proportion of First Nations employees. We should be listened to. But current management practices treat us as obstacles, not as essential partners in the running of the university.
Senior managers play little role in actual university work and have to find something to justify their position and breath taking salaries. Usually, their solution is to restructure, with staff subjected to one punishing round of organisational change after another. This merry-go-round of change has now led to the Koori Centre — the dedicated hub for First Nations students, abolished in 2012 — being reopened as the Gadigal Centre around a decade later.
Tuesday’s strike was a response to the impasse in enterprise bargaining negotiations, which began in August.
Union members are pushing for greater collegial governance, so that our views on questions like First Nations employment would actually count for something. But when management came to us with their proposals for a new collective agreement, they did not have a single word to say about First Nations staff.
Subsequently, they have accepted some of the ideas our union put forward to make USyd a place where historic injustices against First Nations people are repaired, not reinforced.
But they have refused our key demand: enforceable targets for First Nations employment, so that the proportion of such staff working at the university is the same as the proportion in society itself.
There is no reason that this target should not be adopted. USyd sits between the inner-city suburbs of Glebe and Redfern, both of them strongly associated with First Nations people and their histories of dispossession and resistance.
The University must not be a fortress of non-Indigeneity. Yet managers are refusing to agree to First Nations employment targets to which they are actually bound.
They say they don’t want to set targets they can’t meet. We say they have a historic obligation, and have to try harder. Universities should lead the way in addressing the ongoing social and employment disadvantage of First Nations people.
Along with other union members, we were proud to picket university entrances once again to support our proposals for a better, fairer, more rational and democratic university, in which staff are fairly paid and in secure jobs.
This matters to First Nations staff more than to anyone. USyd must open its doors to First Nations staff, students and community, and show that respect for First Nations people is more than a phrase pronounced in Acknowledgments of Country.
[Jeremy Heathcote is an Awabakal man on the University of Sydney NTEU Branch Committee. Nick Riemer is the president of the union branch. These are their personal views.]