No Concessions: Australian tertiary education workers fight back

By Ani White, NTEU member and casual tutor.

In Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), my union, a rank and file rebellion is challenging officials’ defeatist response to the COVID-19 crisis. This piece will begin by outlining the background situation, before outlining the No Concessions campaign led by members.

Background
Many university workers are not covered by JobKeeper, a payment for businesses significantly affected by COVID-19. The NTEU has therefore campaigned for JobKeeper, and full Federal funding. Over this period casuals have been sacked en masse, including 200 staff at my university RMIT. Universities are also seeking to implement a pay freeze, and to restructure Enterprise Bargaining Agreements.

However, the NTEU National Executive has been drawn into a managerial logic of helping balance the books, and a defeatist view of the crisis. A common idea, expressed both by the National Executive and those academics who support them, is that a sacrifice in pay is needed to protect job security. There is a liberal notion here of solidarity as self-sacrifice by privileged academics, rather than solidarity as a rising tide lifting all ships. Additionally, as highlighted by Kaye Broadbent in the Campus Morning Mail:

[N]ot everyone in the university sector is a highly paid academic. Universities are kept afloat by thousands of casual academics, fixed term research academics and casual and contract professional staff.

For the insecurely employed and low paid staff employed in universities reducing pay by any amount will create hardship – our rent and bills still need to be paid. For many university workers, their income is the only one in the household – especially since the crisis hit. And there’s no guarantee even with a pay cut that one more person will keep their job as a result.

Although negotiations are being conducted in secret, union militants have released information about the National Executive’s plans. According to an open letter by Katie Wood, a unionist at University of Melbourne:

On April 3, the National Executive of the NTEU unanimously approved a framework of negotiations that included the possibility of “general reductions in Agreement rates”. NTEU members were unaware of this decision until a Guardian article, published on April 17. Despite various denials from senior leadership that a reduction in rates is under discussion, a survey circulated in some branches asks members if they would be willing to take a reduction in hourly rates of up to 10%”

A document prepared for [the 25th of April’s] briefing of the NTEU National Council… states that the aim of the [National Executive] strategy is to secure “a strong Union role in managing the introduction of any cost saving measures” (emphasis mine).

In a more recent article for Red Flag, after the unconstitutional National Council meeting of April 25th, Wood reported the following:

This week, a hastily called national council “briefing” was rebadged as a “meeting of national councillors” to ram through a vote backing the national executive’s strategy of collaborating with management. The meeting approved the national executive’s motion by a vote of 89 to 13. That’s been touted as a vote of confidence in the strategy, but it has no standing in the union’s official rules – there was no procedure to propose motions beforehand, amendments were explicitly ruled out and procedural motions were repeatedly ignored.

Fightback
The No Concessions campaign began with a motion censuring the National Executive, passed on April 12th at a University of Sydney members’ meeting, by 117 votes to 2. Supporting motions have been passed at members’ meetings across the country. Over 800 members, including myself, signed a statement calling for no concessions by the NTEU National Executive.

Union meetings on Zoom have attracted hundreds of members. However, union officials often run these more like one-way seminars than democratic meetings. The managerial tone became apparent to me personally at a snap ‘rally’ of the Victorian NTEU, just before the No Concessions campaign kicked off: officials claimed that the state government was sympathetic, and members had no opportunity to speak. Members have used the chat function to challenge the official line, alongside establishing independent channels for communication between rank and file members.

After motions and statements being passed in various places, core activists are itching to translate this into action. Strikes are illegal outside of collective bargaining, with a risk of significant fines. However, refusal of unpaid work is under discussion as an industrial tactic. Alongside enforcing the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, this would double as a statement of solidarity with casuals who should be performing that work – a vastly preferable tactic to trading wage freezes for job security.

This week RMIT Casuals, my own section, passed a motion calling on staff to refuse unpaid work. Members are also campaigning for a National Day of Action on the 21st of May.