At the biggest National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) meeting ever held at the University of Sydney (USyd) — or on at any campus in Australia — a record 56% voted to continue strike action. More than 400 members at the more than 700-strong meeting voted for two days of strikes to be held on March 31 and April 5.
The vote is an unprecedented moment for the union movement and for higher education. It comes during the longest strike campaign during enterprise bargaining in NTEU history at 21 months, and after seven previous strike days.
The ongoing struggle at USyd has been sustained by a hardworking, activist NTEU branch, with strong leadership, and an increasingly engaged membership.
The NTEU said the fight against a profit-driven management that relies on an increasingly casualised, exploited and overworked workforce must continue.
Its members have rejected management’s package put forward during contract negotiations. They do not accept the most recent paltry pay offer, which is a pay cut and insulting given the cost of living crisis and the university’s $1 billion operational surplus made during the pandemic.
Union members also reject management’s attempts to radically change the composition of the university, through a massive rise in what are deceptively described as “education focussed” (EF) roles.
EF roles involve a huge and unsustainable teaching load, at 70%, which effectively precludes staff from being able to undertake serious research.
Tutors and lecturers argue that research is essential for them to be able to provide quality and up-to-date education. EF roles have a particularly damaging effect on younger academics and, more broadly, to the production of knowledge at the university.
NTEU members are also angry management is refusing to commit to enforceable First Nations’ parity employment targets. The campus is located on stolen Gadigal land and their refusal represents a continuation of the colonial mindset.
Also at stake is how professional staff are treated: management’s current offer will significantly weaken priority recruitment for professional staff, who are already fighting attacks on their conditions and job security.
Casual professional staff working in the Student Centre, for example, were recently told their contracts will not be renewed when they expire on March 31. Meanwhile in a cost-cutting move, management has at the same time externally advertised 20 fixed-term roles identical to those currently being done by casual staff.
Branch president Nick Riemer said on March 30: “Never once in the history of the university have we had so many NTEU members voting to strike ... that tells us something about the crisis of overwork at the university and the lack of confidence that staff have in the VC [Vice Chancellor], Mark Scott and the Provost Annamarie Jagose, neither of whom have ever bothered even coming to negotiations.”
The upcoming two days of strike action will be demanding that management: put limitations on and improvements to workload control in Education-Focussed (EF) roles; unconditional preservation of the 40:40:20 rule (research, teaching and administration); retention of priority internal advertising for professional staff; a real pay rise; an improvement to the offer of 330 new jobs for decasualisation; and First Nations employment parity.
Community members are welcome and encouraged to join USyd staff on the picket lines on March 31 and April 5.
[Markela Panegyres is a NTEU member and casualised academic at Sydney University.]