By Freya Pinney
WOLLONGONG — Miscellaneous Workers Union (MWU) members led a strike at the university on May 8-10 over the hiring of non-union labour. The picket lines, which formed after a rally of 250 people, were maintained for 24 hours and finished with a well-attended mass meeting.
Members of the Public Sector Association joined the strike. The picket was also supported by the academics' union, the South Coast Labour Council and the Wollongong University Student Representative Council (SRC). Some members of the Community and Public Sector Union also gave their support.
The industrial action began over the employment of a non-union member in a position in which a union member had been acting since last September. University management had also refused to allow a union representative to be on the interview panel.
The strike brought university security and facilities to a standstill. For over 24 hours the university had no cleaners, security staff or car park attendants, no food outlets open on campus and no access to the SRC services. Some university administration staff and academics also went on strike, leading to the cancellation of some classes.
On May 8, the university Education Action Collective picketed the University Day celebrations over the issue of university fees. While the chancellor and vice chancellor appeared to support the students, later, during their speeches, both attacked the strike and condoned the "inevitability of fees". A speaker from BHP also used the platform to condemn the MWU and argue in favour of fees.
The working conditions for university security staff are very unsafe and getting worse. One MWU co-delegate told Green Left Weekly that no extra staff had been employed since 1987. "We are definitely understaffed. We're now forced to do one person patrols in areas with little or no lighting. Also, we now only do lock-ups on the bottom floors of buildings. Due to the university's demands to increase productivity levels, it is impossible to ensure the safety of students and workers adequately."
The university has taken the MWU to the Industrial Relations Commission. A conciliation meeting during the strike recommended that the employee in the dispute not be allowed to start work until all employing procedures are reviewed. It is possible that the interviews will be redone or another shift supervisor position created.
Noreen Hay, an MWU organiser, was enthusiastic at the May 10 mass meeting. "This is a great victory for the workers. The university has not seen this type of industrial dispute for 10 to 12 years ... Some workers here have been employed on casual rates and conditions for years. This is the beginning of challenging the way this university deals with employees."
Workers unanimously voted to suspend the strike until May 15 to give the university time meet the IRC's requirements. They will then meet to decide on further action.