University workers discuss how to become strike-ready

August 20, 2020
A protest outside Josh Frydenberg's Melbourne office in May. Photo: NTEU/Facebook

The organising efforts of precariously employed workers in higher education was the topic of an all-day “Organise Your University Right Now” Zoom symposium on August 19. The key theme was strike preparation and training.

Lachlan Summers, from the University of California Santa Cruz, and Aimee Le, who works at Exeter University in south-west England, joined more than 80 union activists, mostly from the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). There were four major panels, each attended by about 50 people. Summers and Le gave vivid insights into the strike action led by graduate students and other contract workers at universities in the United States and Britain.

NTEU branch president at Charles Sturt University Helen Masterman-Smith provided an analysis of why, how and with what success the branch has been able to implement “deep organising”. This approach recasts union organising efforts as a systematic attempt to establish workers’ power through a delegate leadership structure across workplaces or industries.

A panel examining union organising experiences under COVID-19 looked at solidarity across sectors. The speakers were David Cribb from the Australian Unemployed Workers Union, the Industrial Workers of the World’s Tilde Joy, Sukanya Ananth from the United Workers Union and Hesen Jeong of the Migrant Workers Centre.

A final panel addressed experiences and practices in deep organising. Nick Robinson and Sofie Onorato discussed the campaign against wage theft at Melbourne University. Ellyse Fenton raised the question of anti-racism in the lost fight at the University of Queensland over the creation of a Ramsay Centre (named for its funding from a foundation financed by billionaire Paul Ramsay) teaching “Western civilisation”. As the NTEU branch president at James Cook University, I looked at how we have the “uncomfortable” conversations to develop the relationships that underpin deep organising

Organise Your University Right Now was a member-led initiative, with the majority of organisers being employed casually. Members of the recently-formed Casual, Unemployed and Precarious University Workers group filled out the panel chair positions, offering their insights.

The successful exposure of wage theft by casual workers, such as the $6 million back pay win at Melbourne University, highlighted how effective the activists have been.

On August 24, another NTEU member-led initiative through the National Higher Education Action Network will discuss strike preparation and industrial action to combat funding cuts to the sector as well as management attacks on the jobs, pay and conditions of university workers.

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