University unionists call for unity in debate over directions

April 21, 2020

A growing number of university workers are joining the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) as jobs at universities come under threat during the coronavirus shutdown and the NTEU is seen as a union that will have your back.

Many NTEU members are debating the response by the union’s national officers and executive. “What we do must continue to build the union”, Helen Masterman-Smith, NTEU Charles Sturt University branch president and a Socialist Alliance member, told Green Left. “Ultimately, this is about what we want universities to be like in the future.”

The union’s national executive resolved on April 3 to hold negotiations with university managements, saying it wants to protect jobs. But it concluded that “concessions may be made” around conditions and pay as a “last resort”. It said it would even consider straight-out cuts in pay, although no one has since raised that in the negotiations.

An April 8 email to members from NTEU national secretary Matt McGowan emphasised potential concessions on pay and conditions. He said negotiators were considering measures the union “would never normally consider” and made no mention of the union’s opposition to the sackings of casual staff at some universities, nor did it propose a political and industrial campaign against more sackings. Members were only asked a week later to email the federal education minister with their concerns.

NTEU members have not had much experience of its smallest leadership body directing in this way. Traditionally, the union has discussed its bargaining approach fairly broadly and thoroughly. It has a good track record of campaigning strongly around higher education policy and supporting members in workplace disputes with management.

Responding to McGowan’s email, several branches held members’ or committee meetings that criticised the lack of information about the national leadership’s negotiating stance and called for a political and industrial campaign to defend jobs, pay and conditions.

Some meetings, including at the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne University and Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, also passed censure motions directed at the national executive. Hundreds of members have also signed on to an associated statement.

Crisis compounded

Responding to COVID-19 comes on top of the sector’s existing problems. It has created an immediate crisis.

Universities — once part of an almost fully publicly funded research and higher education system — have been corporatised for the past four decades.

University managements have responded by relying on private funding for revenue, especially fee-paying international students. They have also cut costs by employing workers on casual rates, or short-term contracts, and outsourcing to private contractors.

Under the coronavirus pandemic, government policy towards higher education has become an example of capitalist “shock doctrine” — using disaster to try to end the collective benefits of the public sector.

As a result of the travel bans and the government’s failure to provide income support to most people on temporary visas, the higher education sector will lose up to $5 billion in revenue this year, and up to $19 billion by 2023.

Yet universities appear to be largely ineligible for the JobKeeper program, with the government pushing short courses as an alternative revenue stream. Universities continue to be pushed down a path of providing training, not education.

Meanwhile, university managements, headed by vice-chancellors (VCs), have been largely silent on both government policy and using the financial reserves most universities have.

Job cuts

Many universities have already refused casuals further work, frozen appointments and contract renewals and/or directed workers to take leave. Others have suggested staff “volunteer” to cut their hours, or talked about pay cuts.

Charles Sturt University and the University of Tasmania are pursuing course cuts by as much as three-quarters. They are also looking into selling off campuses as a precursor to cutting jobs.

The NTEU has proposed to VCs that universities stop capital works, cut non-staff expenditures (including senior management salaries) and commit to not standing down staff or making them redundant.

In response, the VCs have asked the union to agree to pay rise delays, including from rises already agreed to. VCs also want management to be able to direct workers to take leave and to work a fraction, perhaps 80%, of their job with an equivalent loss in pay.

This is a trap. Even if the union did win some of its claims, the VCs’ proposals hit lower-paid and less securely employed university workers the hardest. They also threaten hard-won workplace conditions for all workers.

Lower-paid and less secure university workers are those who benefit from promotions and increments and suffer more from real pay cuts. Being able to take annual leave for rest and recreation, not just because the employer doesn’t want you around, has been a key part of the union movement’s efforts to establish and protect workplace conditions.

There is a more fundamental problem. Success in the kind of “job protection framework” the national executive has proposed would be unprecedented.

Employers have invariably found a way to both take what workers have conceded to keep their jobs, and then sacked them anyway. Substantial workers’ control would need to be won in every workplace to shift this.

Therefore, it is little wonder that NTEU members spoke up against the national executive’s concessionary approach to management and its lack of a campaign to protect jobs. They had been kept out of the picture, even while they were putting in extra work to move teaching online. Meanwhile, the VCs had started the sackings.

Collective fight needed

A national executive meeting on April 13 authourised continuing negotiations with university managements, but also discussed campaigning for jobs.

Statewide online briefings were held in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland on April 16 and 17, with many hundreds of members attending. Discussion was limited to a chatbox (which was sometimes tumultuous), with the Division Secretaries managing to respond more or less thoroughly to questions.

There is an opportunity for university workers to wage a collective fight.

NTEU members differ on how best to fight in this situation. They are united in wanting to campaign to win public emergency and long-term higher education funding and opposition to unilateral cuts by management.

Yet they have seen too little about this: the national officers seem caught up in the negotiations with the VCs, like our branches’ experience with enterprise bargaining, and now a response to members’ concerns is needed.

Perhaps a second campaign team of national, divisional and branch leaders, especially involving those who face the sharpest attacks, could enable members’ actions to speak more loudly.

Members have different experiences of university managements, industrial action, levels of branch organisation and views about the union’s senior officers. So far, the cuts have been concentrated at universities in Melbourne and Sydney. As of April 17, the union had received no reports of casual staff being sacked on Queensland campuses.

Critics of the national executive’s strategy have called for a “reset” and for the national executive to lead a campaign for jobs. They are also demanding that major decisions be made democratically.

McGowan and NTEU national president Alison Barnes acknowledged there is a debate about how to fight for the sector and university workers’ conditions. A discussion among members does matter.

As Masterman-Smith said: “This is a complex situation. There are different perspectives and views. We want to discuss these to get to a majority position we can unite around.”

[NTEU activists are organising an online forum Leave no worker behind: Higher education in crisis on April 23 to discuss future action by the union. All NTEU members and others supporting the campaign for higher education and workers’ rights are welcome to join the Zoom session, or follow the livestream on Facebook. Jonathan Strauss is the NTEU James Cook University branch president and a Socialist Alliance member.]

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