Uni staff strike for workplace rights

September 20, 2009
Video: Thank You from NTEU Secretary Genevieve Kelly - YouTube/unionsnsw.

"If you don't give a shit, that's what you get", was a favourite chant of striking Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) city campus staff at their picket lines on September 16.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) day of industrial action to secure new collective agreements involved 16 campuses, and thousands of unionists and supporters.

The NTEU began preparations to bargain for new agreements in February 2008, three months after the federal Labor government won office. The national 24-hour strike took place after 80% of union members across the country who voted in secret ballots to take industrial action after failing to secure new agreements with university administrations.

The union is campaigning for job security, improved conditions for casual staff (53% of undergraduate teachers), a cut in workloads, a pay rise and the restoration of rights removed under the previous Howard government.

Picket lines at RMIT were in place early at the city, Tivoli and Bundoora campuses. After discussions with NTEU members, construction workers and electricians on the city campus decided to walk off the job in support of the NTEU strike.

RMIT staff hope to reach an agreement soon. However, the current pay rise offer of 16.5% by December 2012 is below the average 4.5% a year rise reached at universities that have already settled with the NTEU.

Dr Michael Nott, an RMIT lecturer in pharmacology, told Green Left Weekly that many classes at the city campus were cancelled. He said the lack of a collective agreement, the large class sizes and a squeeze on staff numbers were his main reasons for taking action.

Vannessa Hearman reported that union members, including many casual staff, at the University of Melbourne picketed three main campus entrances and some outlying buildings.

NTEU general secretary Graham McCulloch addressed a lunchtime rally in central Melbourne of about 250 NTEU members. He said the strike was chiefly to support the "completely overlooked" 50,000 casual employees at universities.

Average class sizes have risen dramatically in 10 years. A decade ago, the student teacher ratio was 12 to one. Now it was 27 to one, McCulloch said.

Dr Steve Welch, a striking NTEU member from the school of historical studies at the University of Melbourne, told GLW management was wrong to claim no classes had been cancelled.

"Many staff supported the strike because of concerns over job security and proposed job cuts."

He said management was hypocritical for using the global financial as an excuse to cut jobs.

In Sydney, construction workers from a university site joined more than 150 staff and students for a lunchtime rally at the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

"We were led to expect more from an ALP government", NTEU branch president at UNSW, Susan Price, told GLW.

"The higher education sector needs public renewal now — it cannot wait until 2012 for a serious increase in funding. Many university managements are using the Rudd government's funding delay to resist the NTEU's claims, and this is not on."

NTEU state secretary Genevieve Kelly, NTEU branch president of the University of Sydney Michael Thompson, Greens state parliamentarian Sylvia Hale, Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union organiser Martyn Wyer and UNSW student representatives addressed the rally.

Price told GLW the strike and the recent settlement reached at the University of Sydney had pressured the UNSW administration.

"The response of students and staff was a testament to the committed and principled way in which our members approached the day", said Price. "We even had some international support from two activists from Venezuela, who visited our picket line to show their solidarity."

Rhiahnon Kennedy reported from Perth that more than 200 members of staff at Curtin and Murdoch Universities took part in the strike, before converging at Victoria Gardens in East Perth.

NTEU assistant general secretary Ted Murphy, UnionsWA secretary Simone McGurk, National Union of Students West president Luke Villiers and NTEU WA division secretary Lyn Bloom addressed the rally.

Curtin management had tried to undermine support for the strike by offering an 18% pay rise over five years, with significant reductions in working conditions. The NTEU has been campaigning for 20% over three years.

Linda Seaborn reported from Hobart that University of Tasmania staff held a four-hour stoppage on September 16. Further stoppages will be held at different campuses over the next week. NTEU organiser Rob Binne, NTEU president Kelvin Michael and union members addressed a lunchtime rally.

Thousands of staff struck at the University of Queensland, the Queensland University of Technology and Griffith University campuses. Five hundred staff at the University of Wollongong took also action.

Strikes were also held at the University of Adelaide, Flinders University and the University of South Australia.

[For more information on the NTEU's campaign visit universitybargaining.com.au. To download a copy of the Socialist Alliance support leaflet visit www.socialist-alliance.org.]

Workers from construction sites on the University of NSW join striking NTEU members in a solidarity rally.

NTEU NSW Secretary Genevieve Kelly thanks NTEU members for their successful action on campuses around NSW

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