Posted on Tuesday, 20 June
May 3rd saw one of the largest strikes on any Australian campus in many years, with a rally of 1,000 or so staff and supporters at University of Melbourne. You can see some great footage of it here.
Many Victorian Socialists members have been active in this organising effort. We invited a few of them to share their thoughts on the state of the university sector, why so many workers are getting involved, and the next steps for the campaign.
- Tell us about the state of the university sector, why are so many university workers frustrated?
Katie Wood (Melb Uni): The university sector contains some of the largest employers in Australia, including Melbourne University where I work. For decades now, they have been subject to huge funding cuts from both Labor and Liberal governments. But this has just further entrenched the move towards neo-liberal corporatisation of senior university management that makes the situation worse for staff and students.
We’ve seen wage theft from casual staff on a scale (tens of millions from UniMelb alone) that suggests this was something akin to a management strategy rather than an innocent accounting error. At the same time, Melbourne University has on a couple of occasions now sacked hundreds of professional staff, explicitly as a cost-saving measure.
For those of us who remain, workloads have intensified, as they have for academic staff teaching more students with less support. We’ve got some good conditions still in our current EAs, but they don’t make up for huge workloads, job insecurity and rolling restructures.
Danica Cheesley (Melb Uni): We're overworked, underpaid, and more likely than not on insecure contracts - only 3 in 10 jobs at Australian universities are permanent. It's infuriating! I've worked on contracts as short as one month in length. You can't plan any kind of future when you don't know if you'll have a job next semester.
In 2020 hundreds of our workmates were sacked, on top of the hundreds more who lost their jobs in the years before that, leaving behind out of control workloads for the rest of us. It’s not uncommon for staff to feel pressured into working huge amounts of overtime, often unpaid, to get everything done.
Add to this tens of millions of dollars in wages stolen from casual tutors, and it’s easy to see why people are ready to take action.
Mat Abbott (Federation Uni): We regularly hear that the sector is in crisis, and this is certainly true. But it’s important that the problems we are now facing - rampant casualisation, crushing workloads, and hierarchical, often irrational managerialist governance - were in place well before the pandemic began. The pandemic was not the cause of the crisis but more of a catalyst, as VCs and other senior execs took the opportunities it presented to go on the attack.
The Australia Institute recently found that about 40,000 jobs were cut in higher education between May 2020 and 2021. That’s one in five jobs in the sector, or about the same number of people employed in the coal industry (and we’ve had further cuts since 2021). It was astonishingly aggressive and destructive, and unfortunately NTEU was far from prepared to mount a successful fightback, instead pursuing a concessionary strategy that ended up weakening university workers further.
- Is it the case that funds are scarce, as university managements claim?
KW: Lol no. Melbourne University has something like $10 billion in assets (which has been a huge increase in the past 5 years) and last year made an operating surplus of over $150 million. This was the year after they tried to convince us that we should vote for an Enterprise Agreement variation that would have cancelled our measly 2.5% pay rise and made it cheaper for the uni to make professional staff redundant.
Uni management finances are meant to be public in their publicly available annual reports, but they employ so many smoke and mirror tactics that it’s difficult to know precisely how much they actually have to play with. The numbers on the spreadsheets might lie, but the big new shiny buildings empty of staff, don’t. Uni management are keen to invest in the facade, but not the ongoing cost of staff who actually make the place function.
DC: The idea that a place like Melbourne Uni is poor is absurd. The question isn't whether universities have funds, the question is how they use those funds. Universities choose to spend big on shiny new buildings, expanding their property portfolios, and executive salaries rather than our wages.
Duncan Maskell, our job-slashing Vice Chancellor here at Melbourne Uni, is Australia’s highest paid VC earning $58 000 per fortnight. That's more than many workers across the University make over an entire year. Maskell earns all of this from the luxury of his University owned $7.1 million mansion.
The money is there, they just don’t want to cough it up.
MA: The situation at Federation University - like some other smaller institutions - is more complicated than the one at UniMelb. Management at our university has been failing even on its own narrow neoliberal terms, as the cuts they have enacted have now started to impact seriously on student numbers and therefore revenue.
We still have a very “strong balance sheet,” as execs like to call it - basically this means we have a couple of hundred million in the bank - but if things don’t turn around the institution faces an uncertain future.
There is now a great deal of anger about this from staff, as we bitterly opposed every round of cuts, arguing we would lose our students if management removed our academic programs and undermined support services.
Now everything is happening as we warned it would. But of course, the execs who made these mistakes are refusing to blame themselves, and are now using the fact that students are leaving us as an excuse for a shockingly low pay offer. Because that’s the business model: it’s university workers who face the risks from the impacts of decisions over which we have no control.
- How is the industrial campaign going? Can you share any organising tips? Where do we go from here?
KW: The on-the-ground organising I’m seeing at Melbourne University is unlike anything I’ve seen in my 15 years as a union activist there. It’s mostly come through the networks of casual staff who fought against wage theft for many years now, but there are so many other young workers who are keen to become serious union activists.
It’s really exciting, and I’m proud to play a small part in helping it along. This combined with a generalised antipathy towards management give us a good chance to win some ambitious claims.
But we’re up against some real challenges. The university, for one, has said no to all of our core claims already. The union, despite some impressive growth this year, is still a minority in a massive and hugely varied workforce of approximately 11,000 people. And we face a union that has a recent history of celebrating shitty deals as “union wins” and, during the height of the pandemic, actually proposing to our bosses that they cut our pay in return for spurious assurances that they wouldn’t also cut our jobs.
Still, I’m excited to be part of what feels like a new generation of university workers learning to be serious, militant unionists.
MA: The FedUni NTEU Branch is at an exciting moment. Our new leadership took over in the middle of 2021, winning an election by 3-1 votes on a left platform. Since then our Branch has steadily become more activist and assertive. Our bargaining campaign began in August of last year. We struck in November, and it was building for this that created the grassroots organising structures that have really come into their own this year, including a big team of member organisers as well as a brilliant group of delegates.
We undertook rolling 24 hour strikes at our major campuses over May 2, 3, and 4 (I think this made our Branch the most assertive around Australia during the National Week of Action). The weather was typically terrible at our Ballarat rally so members decided to hold our event in the lobby of the administration building right beneath the VC’s office. There were heaps of us and we were loud as hell. It was powerful to be part of.
Confidence now feels quite high as we get to the pointy end of Bargaining and try to shift management on pay and a number of core conditions. I get the sense they are up for a fight too, however, so things are about to get quite interesting.
One thing I’ve learned from all this is that sometimes you need to take a risk and act before you feel ready. It’s very hard to organise and build structures in a passive union environment, even if you are very dedicated to the idea of it, because members won’t get involved if they don’t feel any urgency and there is no culture of activity.
So rather than try to create an activist culture out of nothing, you need to push for action, set a date, and start doing whatever you can to build for it. You can create some urgency that way, and the kind of context in which activists step up.
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With serious strikes a possibility, staff at Melbourne Uni and their student supporters have launched a gofundme appeal for hardship payments for strikers – please give generously if you can.