Sydney uni dispute won gains, politicised members
Students and staff rally at Sydney University in May.
After a hard-fought industrial campaign, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) at the University of Sydney has just voted to accept a new workplace agreement.
NTEU branch committee member Nick Riemer told Green Left Weekly: “One of the most valuable results of the campaign has been the way it’s politicised and activated the branch.
“It’s been nearly a year of campaigning — including seven strikes — which eventually forced the university administration to back down from its attacks on workplace rights and conditions.”
Riemer said management's initial proposal was “a blueprint for a managers’ paradise”. He said it was the willingness of union members to take strike action that had pushed the administration back.
“We eventually won progressive improvements which will make the university a better and fairer workplace for everyone. We were less successful on salary, but we did succeed in reversing the pay cut management initially tried to impose.”
Last December, Sydney university management offered an agreement that included ending anti-discrimination rights and intellectual freedoms, limiting union rights and classification protections for general staff, further limiting job security and abolishing a quantified research component in academic workloads and limiting existing sick leave provisions.
It also aimed to weaken the review and appeal processes that protect staff in disputes with management, which would also have made it easier for management to cut jobs.
The union fought back and it has now secured for all staff: 80 new ongoing scholarly teaching fellow positions and 40 new early career development fellowships (replacing teaching work previously done by casuals); an Indigenous employment target of 172 staff; 20 days domestic violence leave; a $2 million a year general staff career development fund; a guaranteed 20% research allocation for teaching-focused academics; increases to partner leave; and increased redundancy benefits for general staff.
Riemer said management originally offered a 2% a year pay rise — in effect a pay cut when inflation is factored in. By the end, and only after strike action, the offer amounted to 3% a year.
“It was the first time many of us had ever been on strike, so there was a lot to learn about conducting an industrial campaign.
“Something that became real for me was the dynamism of opinion in the NTEU branch. Overall, you could see how the experience of striking, or being asked to strike, shifted members’ conception of the university and their place in it. It also had an impact on members’ appreciation of their capacity to act.”
Riemer said student support for the staff was “absolutely critical”: “We couldn’t have done this without the students.”
“It gave staff confidence to see that students understood why they were taking action. Students’ efforts in publicising and explaining the strike to their peers and participating in the pickets were invaluable. We shouldn’t forget that some of them paid a heavy price, with hearings coming up for many of the students arrested on the pickets.”
Asked about the need to remain “battle ready” under the new Coalition government, Riemer said: “This dispute won’t somehow miraculously put an end to the managerial insolence that’s so entrenched at Sydney University.
“We can expect further austerity campaigns at the university and attacks of different kinds on students and staff. These will occur outside of an Enterprise Bargaining period — which means under the current IR system that the union will not be able to take protected industrial action.
“That means we’ll have to respond in other ways, and the solidarity and commitment we’ve built in this campaign will stand us in very good stead to be able to do that.”