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USYD strike: the whole story

A complete summary of the 48 hour USYD strike

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It came in ebbs and flows. Hours of quiescence would be shattered by a noisy lecture intrusion; a sleepy campus would be suddenly awoken by the sound of anarchist drums and activist chants. For the students who crossed the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) picket lines on Tuesday and Wednesday, it was a manic few days of uni.

Manic for students, grueling for strikers. Picket lines were established at 7am on the Tuesday morning and effectively ran for the majority of the next two days. In temperatures of up to thirty-one degrees, bottled water and sunblock were in high demand.

One Associate Professor in the Business School picketing on Lender Street told Honi Soit that persevering in the heat was essential.

“I’m on strike because I feel very strongly about the University trying to push union representation of staff out of basically every procedure that we have at the University of Sydney,” the striker said.

They added that the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) being proposed by the University—which dictates the wages, conditions, and representative rights of staff—would end a century of University respect for staff representation and input on change and governance issues.

“What they’re trying to do through this Enterprise Agreement is to try to push our representatives out … it’s anti-collegial and it’s anti-Sydney Uni policy as far as I’m concerned.”

This staff member, like others who spoke to Honi Soit, said last year’s staff cuts had left a deficit of trust between employees and employers.

“In the last year, 700 of my colleagues were put on a list for redundancies and the only reason why the people on that list didn’t end up losing their jobs … [was] because the NTEU, our union, supported them through that and negotiated with management to change their position on making those people redundant,” they said. Key provisions in the proposed EBA would put pressure on the Unions, for example by ending their access to free office spaces on campus. The NTEU has also said the new EBA would sideline unions from future negotiations and change procedures.

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Picket lines appeared thinner, less obstinate, and less aggressive than those of the week one strike. When a student leaving the University expelled snot onto one of the picketers on the City Road footbridge, the protesters merely exchanged faces and laughed.IMAG0118

But it was on these picket lines that tensions began. Over the two days, thousands of students and many staff crossed, ignoring the pleas of striking staff and their supporters.

Some students were met with more than pleas.

“It was really hard to get past, they moved to block you,” a student crossing the Lander Street picket line said. The business student, who wished to remain anonymous, could not be swayed.

“I actually worked it out yesterday, it’s $32 an hour per lecture. By not going to a lecture I’m wasting 62 bucks,” they said.

It wasn’t just those crossing that experienced problems. There were two reported incidents involving impatient truck drivers trying to force their way past the picket lines on City Road and Ross Street. Here you can see one truck accelerating as a lone protester tries to resist. You can also see police forcing the line back, something that happened at several locations and often sparked tension, most notably on day two at the Law Carpark entrance. The incidents inspired this Nour Dados piece, published online by New Matilda.

Each picket had its own characteristics. On the second day of the 48 hour strike, for instance, the Redfern boardwalk picket pleaded with students, while the picket line at the Law School road had constant face-offs with riot police. Not a single car was allowed through as picketers sung union classics like “Solidarity Forever” and “Which Side Are You On?”, as well as a less traditional rendition of the strike song Lisa Simpson famously performed outside the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.

The strike dynamics were underpinned by the different agendas of the groups involved, the different methodologies and tendencies, whether they were anarchists or social democrats, Trotskyist or ALP, union or non-union, student or non-student.

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Protesters interrupt a lecture in the Eastern Avenue Auditorium

The skirmishes and heckles along these lines, however, were quickly overshadowed by what has become the most controversial pro-strike activity so far.

They were called ‘roaming pickets’: groups of up to 50 students marching through the University and interrupting lectures. Their aim was to prevent lecturers and students breaking the strike by holding classes. To accurately describe which students were involved in these roaming pickets is a difficult task. It has been widely reported that the actions were carried out by the Education Action Group (EAG), a collective run by the Students’ Representative Council. If you were on campus last year, you will remember the EAG’s prominent role in the anti-staff cuts campaign.

However, neither of the Education Officers and EAG conveners, Casey Thompson or Tenaya Alattas, took part in the lecture intrusions. Indeed, since they took place, many members of the EAG have privately expressed concern about the use of such tactics.

This is what we know. The roaming pickets (also somewhat sweetly referred to as “flying pickets”) were dominated by members of the Solidarity group but included individual members of Socialist AlternativeSocialist AllianceGrassroots (a left wing faction on campus), anarchists, and other non-politically-affiliated students. Included in this cohort were a number of non-student activists. As far as Honi Soit can discern, they made up the minority of the group. One of them stated his reasons for joining the protest thus:

“I have an interest in defending solid rates of pay and sick leave, because that helps set standards for all workers. But more importantly I have an interest in defending the education system. Every book I read, every building I use, every piece of technology that I enjoy, have been developed by highly trained technical workers. To undercut education waters down the quality of the training available to these people—that’s unacceptable to me.”

At their most successful, these lecture intrusions met mixed receptions.

As protesters burst into a 10am bioethics lecture in the Eastern Avenue Auditorium, Chelsea, a student attending the class, said she was shocked by the “loud and disruptive” intrusion. Protesters quickly moved to the front of the room and started a ‘speak-out’. Using a handheld microphone they argued that the class should be ended and that students should walk out.

“They were just sort of arguing, back and forth, back and forth, they haven’t really explained what they’re fighting for. Everyone talking over each other kind of distracts from their main message,” Chelsea said.

Protesters opened the floor to students and invited them to speak. One spoke from his seat, angered that his lecture was being interrupted. He just wanted to get a good education and get a job, he said. Another did the same, telling the protesters his father was a high-school teacher and that he believed no one, including them, had the right to interrupt his education. Protesters acknowledged these sentiments but retorted that their actions would help everybody in the room in the long run.

“I didn’t feel threatened, they weren’t physical. I thought it was quite interesting as well, hearing their side of things,” Chelsea said. “I think there is a reason for their action, I think that’s what they believe and they’re standing up for what they believe.”

Nick Heyward, another student in the class, said he supported the strike but was disappointed by the actions of the roaming picket. “I think there needs to be a distinction made between a lawful industrial action—striking—and then what I see as civil disobedience, an inappropriate reaction to the situation,” he said.

Others present described the actions as “entirely unjustified” and “ridiculous.”

At the back of the room, the lecturer watched over his class-cum-forum. “If you want to stand outside and protest that’s fine,” he said, but entering his lecture wasn’t. Although he supported elements of the strike, he was not an NTEU member and so could not join the protected industrial action. On returning to the lectern, he discovered his USB stick was missing. It has not since been returned.

This was probably the smoothest of all the intrusions. Another, in Wallace Lecture Theatre the next day, was similar. One student actually asked his lecturer to explain the pros and cons of the strike. The lecturer replied, saying it was an inappropriate forum for such discussion. “Where was the appropriate forum?” one of the protesters asked. The occupiers left the class after 10 or 15 minutes.

In stark contrast, a third intrusion quickly devolved into a howling failure for the activists. Moving into a Bosch lecture they were jeered by students, who cheered the entry of the police, and chanted “get out, get out, get out.” Two protesters narrowly avoided arrest.

These incidents, however, have generated far less commentary and attention than the now infamous attempts to shutdown Chemistry Lecture Theaters.

Just before 10am on Tuesday, protesters entered Chemistry Lecture Theatre 3, where Associate Professor Timothy Schmidt was presenting a chemistry class. They moved to the front of the Theatre and chanted while others circulated the room and handed out leaflets. A drummer took up a position and improvised his rhythms while the lights were switched on and off. Unbeknownst to the protesters, Schmidt had been using what he described as “dangerous chemicals” when the lecture was interrupted. He later described what happened next.

“There were chemical spills on the front bench … It is a chemical bench. The activists sat on the bench. Go figure. In my case, I suffered a very minor inconvenience. But, moreover, I am traumatised and resolved not to support the ignorance of the EAG. The university is meant to be an intellectual environment.”

In the chaos, Schmidt spilt 18 molar sulfuric acid on himself but was able to wash it off before any damage was done. A witness said Schmidt was forced to physically prevent protesters approaching the open flame on his desk.

Schmidt said he was against limiting the number casual staff that could be employed (a key NTEU demand), as his department needed such staff for laboratory demonstrations so that academics could avoid taking on a greater workload.

Though upset, Schmidt’s sense of humour seems to have survived the incident.

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The roaming picket then moved upstairs to Chemistry Lecture Theatre 1. With the drumming and chanting, the room initially took on a kind of festival atmosphere. However, as protesters filed in, police shadowed them. The room divided into three: chanting protesters at the bottom, bemused—and many amused—students in the middle, police at the top. This uneasy truce held until three policemen hauled a protester by the name of Ben Peterson. If you watch the linked videos you will see the police lifting him (at the 1:00 mark) and dragging him outside (at 4:39). What you won’t see is the reason police grabbed him in the first place. Peterson said police warned him that he was trespassing but that he rejected their accusation and went back to talking to students. The next moment, Peterson was grabbed by one of the police. When he resisted, two more came and lifted him off the ground. Peterson says he was not placed under arrest and that the police had no right to remove him. He was not charged.

Ben Peterson is pulled from the lecture
Ben Peterson is pulled from the lecture

Protesters followed him out and a messy near-brawl broke out between police and protesters (watch the second video for the full melee). It led to five arrests and two protesters being charged, one with resisting arrest, the other with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer.

One of the protesters present was Fahad Ali. He was in no doubt as to who was to blame for the violence. “It was not violent at all until the police got physical,” he said. While recording the incident, Fahad had a policeman swat his hand to prevent him filming.

After witnessing the scuffle Fahad stood on Eastern Avenue, badly shaken. Breaking into tears, he was comforted by SRC Education Officer Casey Thompson.

A devestated Fahad Ali
A devestated Fahad Ali

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As referenced previously, the second saw more minor lecture incursions, headed by smaller groups. Back on the picket line, Chris Holdridge, a third-year PHD student and research assistant in the History Department, explained why he came out on a second scorching day. Holdridge was worried that certain provisions in the University’s new EBA would mean a greater workload for academics.

This has been a common complaint. The abandonment of the 40:40:20 provision—which dictated academics spend 40% of their time doing research, 40% of their time teaching, and 20% of their time doing administrative work—has in particular sparked concern. The fear is that more administrative work will be dumped on academics, depleting their abilities to teach and research adequately.

“I think that’s really concerning, particularly if we’re looking into the future and we really want to leave a legacy of quality education for Australia’s next generation,” Holdridge said. He added that many of his friends had given up two days of pay in order to join the strike.

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“Let’s end with a bang, not a whimper.”

The City Road sit-in
The City Road sit-in

Wednesday afternoon saw the final direct action of the strike: a sit-in on City Road. After marching as part of the NSW Education Action Network’s and National Union of Students’ National Day of Action, organised independent of the strike, between fifty and a hundred protesters sat down on the city-bound side of the road. Dozens of police descended on the scene and took up positions around the demonstrators. As the police kept vigil they were too encircled by hundreds of curious onlookers. Another six police mounted on horses looked on, waiting for a riot or a game of polo to break out. Cars were banking back and quickly losing their patience. “We should sit here till they drag us away,” Tom Raue, one of the protesters, announced. In the noise and the heat and the tension, everybody waited for the police to make a move, for their circle to close in, and for the madness to begin.

But it never did.

After a few congratulatory speeches, the occupiers voted on whether to move on and rejoin the picket lines, to remain seated on the road, or, as per the request of Solidarity, to continue the flying pickets. After a confused, spontaneous show of hands, they stood up and regrouped with the picketers, despite the discontent of some protestors who wished to continue blockading City Road.

The biggest spectacle of the strike trickled out. Within hours, everyone had gone home, or to the pub. The Royal swelled with protesters and echoed their battle tales. With the sun setting on two exhausting days, union members had finally abandoned their picket posts.

You couldn’t help but feel that somewhere in the deepest, darkest, most secret halls of the University, Michael Spence, Ann Brewer, and the rest of the University bargaining team opened bottles of candle-illuminated wine, held their heads, and whispered their own war stories.

 

 

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