Union members locked out, strike at James Cook University

May 11, 2023
University staff at James Cook University on May 4. Photo: supplied

University managements will make the institutions’ workers bear the brunt of their surplus-scrounging wherever they can. James Cook University (JCU) in northern Queensland is no exception.

In recent years job cuts have been followed by pay offers well below inflation. The latest round of “enterprise bargaining” for pay and conditions over the last 18 months has now extended to all the publicly-funded universities.

Eighty four people lost their jobs in the restructuring at JCU at the end of last year. Meanwhile, management’s pay offer on April 27, after a year and a half of negotiations, amounted to an annual rise of less than 2.5% to the end of 2026.

National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members rejected management’s proposal. Since JCU’s agreement expired in the middle of 2021, inflation has been running at about 7%.

The NTEU does not want its agreement to confirm going backwards nearly 10% in real terms and, most likely, put in place further reductions in living standards for three more years.

NTEU members struck on May 4 and rallied at JCU’s two larger campuses in Townsville and Cairns. They joined a nationwide campaign by the NTEU, with actions on nine universities in Victoria, NSW, Queensland and the ACT.

JCU is not a large university, but a few dozen people were actively involved on each campus, supported by students who used it as an opportunity to discuss activism together for the first time.

Local councillor and Socialist Alliance member Rob Pyne attended the Cairns rally.

In the face of management threats to lock them out, some JCU NTEU members imposed work bans at the start of the same week. Management then refused to accept any work from these staff.

The bans would have had minimal impact — taking a couple of minutes out of classes to talk with students about the campaign — but management proceeded to lock these staff out anyway.

That generated some local media interest, and gave unionists an opportunity to talk about why they were taking part in an NTEU national week of action.

Across the country, many events were organised involving dozens or hundreds of members. There has been more coordinated action between the NTEU branches at different universities this bargaining “round”.

However, to make a significant dent on university managements’ neoliberal plans, and the capitalist logic behind that, higher education workers need more industrial power. Building workplace organisation and the union’s membership is the basis to create that. Then the union needs to be willing to use that power.

[Jonathan Strauss is the NTEU James Cook University Branch President. He writes in a personal capacity.]

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