University workers get organised to fight for jobs, education

Students protest education cuts in Melbourne in February. Photo: Jacob Andrewatha

The National Higher Education Action Network’s (NHEAN) national assembly of university staff decided on August 24 to commit to planning unprotected industrial action to oppose federal education minister Daniel Tehan’s cuts to higher education.

About 460 university workers attended the online assembly, including some who have recently been made redundant, and casual workers who have been organising in new networks across the country.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the longstanding neoliberal onslaught on university workers has reached new heights. Vice Chancellors and university management bodies have used the pandemic to make long-desired staff cuts, course cuts and “course restructures” — a euphemism for cuts and wage theft.

These have already had a harmful impact, particularly on casualised and fixed-term academics in humanities faculties.

In June, Tehan announced “reforms” to higher education, which includes raising the cost of an arts degree to $50,000 and cutting $700 million from university funding.

Meanwhile, university workers’ faith in the ability of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) to fight for their jobs and conditions has been eroded. In May, the NTEU national executive proposed a so-called Jobs Protection Framework, which would have traded workers’ wages for jobs. This was announced without adequate consultation with members. The Jobs Protection Framework was not only increasingly rejected by rank-and-file members, but it also caused widespread disillusion in the union.

As a result, many NTEU members and non-members have organised at the grassroots level to fight for their jobs and working conditions.

One such group is the NHEAN, which is made up of rank-and-file NTEU members who meet online weekly to organise against the cuts.

The assembly’s main aim was to consider and debate a motion against the federal government’s cuts, including the possibility of strike action.

The assembly was open to all university staff — including non-union members and unemployed workers. In the weeks preceding, workers were invited to put forward amendments to motion drafts.

The assembly heard from Professor Devleena Ghosh, Social and Political Sciences Program, at the University of Technology (UTS) in Sydney; Annette Herrera, acting vice president of professional staff at Melbourne University the NTEU; Associate Professor Jason De Santolo (Garrwa & Barunggam) from Indigenous Research and Practice, School of Design UTS and Dr Robert Boncardo from the University of Sydney. Each put a strong case in support of the NHEAN’s motion and strategy.

A motion put by Nick Riemer and seconded by Paddy Gibson called on the assembly to: support higher education as “a vital public good” and “not be treated as a competitive market”; demanded the federal government “redirect funds from unnecessary military and other expenditure towards guaranteeing jobs, wages and conditions for all staff”; “radically reduce” universities’ rates of casualisation through the “conversion of precarious staff to ongoing employment”; provide “accessible education for all” by supporting students financially; and oppose the government cuts to university funding.

It called on the assembly to endorse the National Union of Students (NUS) rally against fee hikes on August 28 and the School Strike 4 Climate national day of action on September 25; and called for the widest possible participation.

It also committed to “building a diverse national network of university workers across state, institutional and employment divisions, that aim to strengthen every campaign and resist austerity in the sector” and to mount a “vigorous campaign of coordinated actions with the goal of making democratically-planned unprotected industrial action possible so as to defend universities from funding cuts and protect all university jobs”. It agreed to build a major demonstration involving NTEU, NUS and secondary school student groups before the government’s budget in October, and called on the NTEU and other unions to support these rank-and-file actions.

Participants raised criticisms of the motion, including that it did not outright demand an end to the neoliberal austerity measures, that it did not highlight casuals (those most severely affected by the cuts and shutdowns) and that instead of calling and planning for a strike, it merely supported unprotected strike action as a goal.

After energetic debate, and some pushing of sectarian agendas, the motion was supported by 95% of attendees.

The national assembly could be said to only be a symbolic gesture of resistance. However, that would ignore the work done by dedicated university workers to set up a grassroots union network.

The assembly represented a significant achievement, gathering so many workers who are striving for education justice, as well as the decolonisation and democratisation of universities.

[Markela Panegyres is a member of the NTEU and a casualised academic.]

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