BY ARUN PRADHAN
Libraries standing empty and university lectures being cancelled would normally alarm people concerned with quality education, but on October 16 — when up to 40,000 university staff went on strike across Australia — the sight was truly inspirational.
Organised by the National Tertiary Education Union, it was the first national strike in the union's history. Staff, students and NTEU supporters organised picket lines, attended meetings and marched in rallies to show their resolve in fighting the federal government's latest round of attacks.
The government is attempting to link funding of $404 million to universities' compliance with the government's demand that they introduce individual employment contracts (Australian Workplace Agreements, AWAs).
Government legislation mandating this requirement is now waiting to be debated in the Senate. If passed, the legislation would weaken the role of the NTEU and other university staff unions in defending employees' wages and conditions, remove limits on casualisation, undermine parental leave and weaken redundancy provisions.
While the workplace relations aspect of the legislation is a key battle front, the NTEU has also drawn attention to the overall package of reforms proposed by federal education minister Brendan Nelson, including his plans to lift Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) tuition fees by up to 30% and to double the percentage of full-fee-paying students.
In Melbourne, picket lines began from 6am and shut down La Trobe and Ballarat universities, the Australian Catholic University and the Victoria University of Technology. Other campuses were running with skeleton staff and few students. By midday almost 1000 protesters gathered for a mass meeting in Melbourne's Athenaeum Theatre.
NTEU Victorian branch secretary Matt McGowan told the audience that they faced a battle on two fronts — to get individual universities to continue to sign collectively bargained agreements and, secondly, to force the government to back down on its workplace relations requirements.
However, McGowan cautioned those present about future deals the government might make with university administrations, pointing out that the government believes "every Australian has the 'right' to pay fees". He encouraged NTEU members to stand firm, but also to stand in solidarity with other unions. He said that, while at first glance building workers and university staff have little in common, they faced the same struggle.
"The Cole royal commission into the building industry spent $60 million and came up with nothing", McGowan said. "Its aim is the same as the legislation that we face — to ensure that unions can't function... if [the government] gets the building unions, it will be applying its attacks across the board, and we are just the next in line!"
McGowan ended his speech by encouraging those attending the rally to support a Trades Hall Council lunch-time rally on November 11 that will protest against the Howard government's attacks on unions and in support of workers' rights.
Earlier in the proceedings, one of the biggest ovations was reserved for National Union of Students (NUS) education officer Liz Thompson. Describing the inspirational feeling on her picket line that morning, she said: "This is one of the most useful things we have done for the last seven years... it is this sort of action that is going to defeat the legislation."
Thompson called for staff-student solidarity and further protest action.
While not raised at the mass meeting, the NTEU national council meeting on October 7, which called the October 16 strike, also adopted a motion to "consider" another national strike in early 2004. The success of the October 16 strike, and the fact that up to 100 university employees had joined the NTEU every day in the leadup to the strike, are indications that proposals for future strike action will garner enthusiastic support from NTEU members.
Claudine Holt reports from Bendigo that 150 university staff and students rallied in Hargraves Mall on October 16 as part of the NTEU national strike.
In a major blow to the federal government's higher education "reform" agenda, the Australian National University has decided to sign on to an agreement with the NTEU that ignores proposed new workplace relations requirements, reports Kerryn Williams from Canberra.
A key element of these requirements, yet to be passed by federal parliament, is that all staff must be offered AWAs, with government funding tied to compliance with this provision. However, the ANU deal allows no provision for AWAs. The numbers of casual and fixed-term employees are limited in the ANU agreement, also in direct conflict with the Howard government's "reform" agenda.
In addition to a 17.4% staff salary increase, the ANU deal includes the provision of 20 weeks' paid maternity leave, setting a new benchmark substantially higher than the 12 weeks offered in the federal public service.
NTEU officials told the media that the successful ANU deal puts pressure on other university administrations to follow suit.
As a result of the agreement, ANU staff called off their strike action and instead mobilised in their hundreds to join a lunch-time rally with University of Canberra (UC), Australian Defence Force Academy and Australian Catholic University staff.
Pat Brewer, UC NTEU branch secretary and one of the strike organisers, told Green Left Weekly that "unfortunately, the management at UC has been unwilling to take a stand against the government's attacks on higher education, in direct contrast to the ANU vice-chancellor who was courageous enough to take the first public stance against the threat of funding withdrawal".
NTEU and Australian Manufacturing Workers Union members at UC voted unanimously to strike on October 16. Contrary to UC vice-chancellor Roger Dean's claims, printed in the October 17 Australian, that "some physical aggression" took place, throughout the morning of October 16, entirely peaceful and good-natured pickets were maintained at all main UC gates.
The university car parks, usually filled to near capacity, contained only a smattering of cars.
A strike and picket also took place at the Signadou campus of the Australian Catholic University.
Kathleen Scott and Paul Benedek report from Sydney that Sydney University staff and students again organised picket lines at the entrances to the university grounds. Nine days after the last strike at the university, far fewer cars, staff and students were attempting to enter the campus.
At noon, around 1000 strikers and their supporters rallied at the university to hear speakers from the NTEU, NUS and the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU). The Sydney University strikers were joined by staff ferried in on buses from the University of New South Wales, Macquarie University, the Australian Catholic University and the University of Western Sydney.
News that the NTEU branch at the Australian National University had signed an enterprise agreement with the ANU that rejected the government's new workplace requirements was warmly received.
Michael Thomson, NTEU Sydney University branch acting president, called on vice-chancellor Gavin Brown to follow suit and sign an enterprise agreement which has been under negotiation for more than 12 months. At an emergency meeting called by the university management with the NTEU enterprise bargaining team earlier that day, Brown had refused to accept the NTEU team's demand that there be no acceptance of AWAs in the agreement.
The strikers and their supporters marched down Broadway to pick up picketing staff from the University of Technology Sydney on the way to Belmore Park, where 2500 people rallied. Messages of support were read out from university unions in New Zealand, Canada and the United States, as well as from other unions in Australia.
Because an enterprise agreement has already been signed between the NTEU and UNSW, the vice-chancellor sought an Industrial Relations Commission ruling prohibiting UNSW staff from joining the October 16 strike.
A compromise between the union and the university was reached, under which UNSW staff did not participate in the all-day strike, but were allowed time off to attend the city rally. Four busloads of UNSW staff and students joined the city rally.
Russell Pickering reports from Perth that university staff and students picketed universities in Western Australia on October 16, before rallying at the Perth Cultural Centre. Unions WA secretary Stephanie Mayman chaired the 1000-strong rally, telling those assembled that there was unanimous support from affiliated WA unions for the day's strike action.
Curtin University vice-chancellor Professor Lance Twomey estimated that Curtin University could lose in the vicinity of $10 million in funding if it did not agree to implement Nelson's workplace relations requirements. He said that the funding might not be worth the problems associated with implementing Nelson's agenda.
Other speakers included NTEU WA division president Mick Campion, who said it was not only staff who opposed the government's agenda but also many members of management from WA universities; WA NUS president Zaneta Mascarenhas; and former Unions WA secretary Tony Cooke, now a university academic.
Five-hundred people attended an NTEU-organised rally in Adelaide on October 16, reports Leslie Richmond. Students and other supporters of the NTEU joined academic and general staff from Adelaide University, Flinders University, and the University of South Australia, to condemn the Howard government's attacks on higher education and on workers' right to organise.
Speakers included Adelaide University Students Association president Sarah Hanson-Young, SA United Trades and Labour Council secretary Janet Giles; construction union SA branch secretary Martin O'Malley and NTEU assistant general secretary Ted Murphy. Several of the speakers noted the need for unions to support each other against attacks from the federal Coalition government.
Terrica Strudwick reports from Brisbane that 1000 students and university staff rallied at the Roma Street Forum and then marched to Waterfront Place on October 16 as part of the national 24-hour NTEU strike.
A number of successful pickets were held outside university campuses in Brisbane and in regional areas of Queensland. Pickets at the University of Queensland and Griffith University received broad support from staff and students.
Officials from the Queensland Teachers Union, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the Electrical Trades Union, the Australian Services Union, the CPSU and the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union also attended the rally.
From Green Left Weekly, October 22, 2003.
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