More than 600 Victorian National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members crammed into Victorian Trades Hall on May 3 for their first stop-work meeting in a decade. The meeting started with chants of “Stop union busting” and “No to stolen wages”.
Others filled the first-floor viewing area, while others waited outside the building — their supportive and passionate chants could be heard from inside. Meeting chairperson Ben Eltham, from Monash University, said they were overwhelmed by the attendance.
Members from Victoria’s eight universities took strike action. However, anti-strike laws stopped most of RMIT University’s staff from participating.
University staff are demanding a rapid finalisation of their 18-month-long negotiations for workplace agreements.
Casualisation was highlighted as a major concern. During the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of staff were sacked or moved onto casual contracts. For example, half of RMIT’s staff are on casual contracts.
Damien Cahill, associate professor and national NTEU secretary, pointed out that remaining staff are overworked due to job cuts. There is also a massive crisis of insecure work — only 30% of staff have ongoing work.
Cahill stressed that there must be investment in secure jobs. He said that casual workers must be paid for all the work they do, not given inadequate recompense for their work.
Cahill said that their other demands are healthy workloads, gender affirmative leave, fair pay rises and an stop to the “endless restructuring”.
He described the attempts by Deakin University’s management to weaken the union.
Staff rejected five non-union ballots in five months put forward by management. The most recent ballot asked staff to accept a 2.8% yearly pay rise, without meaningful protections for staff conditions, and failed to meet the union’s demands of First Nations employment parity, reduced workloads and a right for staff to work from home.
While university managements continue to propose measly pay rises, chancellors are on six or seven-figure salaries.
Cahill said their demands are winnable. The University of Sydney NTEU campaign for a reduction of 25% in casual jobs was won. The staff also won the right for staff to disconnect from work after work hours and, after nine days of strike action, have won pay rises for casual staff.
Michelle Giovas, lead NTEU negotiator and health and safety representative at Monash University, echoed the need for better conditions, pay rises and for an end to wage theft.
Insecure work causes huge stress and is a health and safety concern, she said.
Elena Gomez, a casual staff member at Melbourne University, said that the university management relies on casual staff, but can hire and fire them at their whim.
But casuals are fighting back and have started a successful wage theft campaign, she said.
Gomez said that management believed they could pit casuals against permanent staff. Yet, at the meeting, casual and ongoing staff stood together. All staff should be given secure jobs, she said.
Gomez questioned how RMIT University governing council member Bruce Akhurst, who is the chairperson of Tabcorp, is qualified to make decisions about education.
At the end of the meeting, NTEU members marched from Victorian Trades Hall to the nearby Eight Hour Day Monument.
A motion to continue industrial action if the union's demands were not met by June 30 was put to the crowd and passed unanimously.