Thousands of staff from 16 universities across the country will strike on September 16 for new union collective agreements. The actions follow strikes at the University of New England and Charles Sturt University on September 9 and at Victorian and Tasmanian campuses on May 21.
The strikes planned for September 16 reflect growing frustration among members of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) at the slow pace of bargaining and hostile attitudes of university managements.
The higher education sector and the NTEU in particular were big targets of the previous Howard government's neoliberal assault on public education and workers' rights.
Under Howard, public funding of universities failed to keep pace with inflation. During this period, Australia was the only developed nation where funding of higher education declined as a share of GDP.
The Howard government also targeted the NTEU with special laws, the Higher Education Workplace Relations Requirements, designed to limit the union's effectiveness.
The requirements tied federal funding to changes in working conditions on universities. It required universities offer individual contracts to all staff and stop providing offices to the NTEU rent-free.
It also mandated that some conditions be stripped from workplace agreements. This meant restrictions on the use of fixed term contracts and limited union representation on many university committees.
The NTEU began to prepare for bargaining in February 2008, three months after the election of the ALP government. The union launched a public policy campaign that included calls for the restoration of funding to the higher education sector, the establishment of a discrete Universities Act, defence of academic freedom and university independence.
It adopted claims to improve conditions for university staff on each campus, including a 20% pay rise over three years, restoration of the conditions lost under the Howard government; measures to regulate staff workloads; improvements in working conditions and job security for casual academic staff and contract research staff.
In its first phase of bargaining, the NTEU won new agreements at the University of Ballarat, the Australian National University, Charles Darwin University, and the University of Western Australia.
But managements at most universities have bought time. Aided by the delays in restoration of funding by the Federal government, university managements have delayed serious negotiations with the union and have strongly resisted agreeing to restore conditions.
Universities have also cried poor, citing a lack of certainty regarding future funding from the Rudd government and recent foreign investment losses thanks to the global financial crisis.
The peak employer group, the Australian Higher Education Industry Association, is backing the hostile bargaining approach from the vice-chancellors.
The Rudd government did not announce a new funding model for higher education until its 2009 budget — 17 months after its election.
The ALP has promised to inject an extra $5.5 billion into higher education to the end of the 2012 financial year. But most of this won't be spent until after 2010, well past the date of the next federal election.
Government requirements that union members must vote by secret ballot to take legal industrial action has taken a considerable amount of the NTEU's resources and time.
However, almost 20,000 NTEU members voted in 32 ballots on 29 campuses. Members have turned out in significant numbers — more than 75% of members at Curtin, Murdoch and Wollongong universities took part.
Disappointingly, there was also widespread disenfranchisement of casual staff who are members of the NTEU on many campuses. They were not able to vote due to being excluded by universities from information provided to the Australian Electoral Commission.
Regardless of these setbacks, in every ballot a big majority of voters supported strike action.
Recent experience reinforces the fact that collective industrial action works. Two of the six branches that took industrial action in May have won significant gains as a result.
[Susan Price and Jeremy Smith are members of the Socialist Alliance, Susan is the NTEU UNSW branch president and Jeremy is the president of the University of Ballarat NTEU branch.]