The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) national executive released its National Jobs Protection Framework on May 13 after negotiating with the Higher Education Industrial Association. On May 20, 80% of the union’s national council voted to support it. Andrew Chuter, a member of the NTEU National Council and the Socialist Alliance, was one of those who voted against it, and explains his reasoning below. The union has decided against circulating the no position to its members. All NTEU members will have a chance to vote on the Framework.
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The approach of the national executive of the NTEU from the outset was misguided because it led with concessions. Concessions may need to be made, but they are made at the end of the fight, when the campaign is exhausted and needs to regroup.
The underlying principle of the NTEU national executive’s Jobs Protection Framework is to trade off wages for jobs. This is the wrong approach. This is comparable to the situation of scrapping penalty rates on the basis that it will increase jobs. No serious unionist believes this argument, and there is no evidence that it works.
Workers’ strength comes from their ability to withdraw their labour. Without that threat, the bargaining position is always weak. That is why the bosses always prefer to make industrial action illegal, or limited only to certain time periods, such as when an agreement is expiring. The COVID-19 pandemic is not such a time and therefore negotiations should be avoided. If workers can be stood down now and “management prerogative can go unfettered”, as the NTEU executive has explained, there is no reason to believe that negotiations can achieve a better result. Under these circumstances, energy is better spent in building union numbers (for example, extend free memberships for casuals), public political campaigning and testing members’ appetite for unprotected strike action.
On April 24, the NTEU National Council directed the National Executive to recommend any negotiated Jobs Protection Framework to members only if it is “demonstrably better in terms of protection of job security and maintenance of living wages than allowing managerial prerogative to go unfettered”. Since we don’t know what management would do without this Framework, it is impossible to demonstrate what would be better. In these circumstances, the best guide we have are the lessons of history. The Prices and Incomes Accord of the 1980s is one.
The significant loss of jobs occurring in the sector now is a righteous source of anger. This has generated an upsurge of rank-and-file activity. Our union’s task must be to harness and focus this anger in the direction of the university bosses and the federal government. Any union-negotiated framework that involves wage cuts and job losses will have the effect of sublimating anger or, worse, risk redirecting some of it back to the union.
The union has generally framed the problem as one of under-funding. Universities should be taken back into public hands, under staff-student-community control, starting with private universities. International education should be based on fostering intercultural understanding between countries and not dependent on a student’s capacity to pay.
A “no” vote on the Framework will send a strong message to the university bosses and the government that the union’s rank and file is up for a fight. The union’s executive must work with rank-and-file members to secure jobs and conditions and challenge universities to open their books.
The NTEU should prepare a vigorous, creative union-student-community campaign aimed at federal education minister Dan Tehan and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s failure to provide proper base line funding to universities and, in this COVID-19 crisis, their failure to support education workers. It should canvass how this crisis could be used to chart a pathway away from user-pays to world class publicly-funded higher education, in which education workers are valued.