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USU leaves workers out to dry

The USU is letting down its staff and the student body.

The University of Sydney Union logo but the S has been replaced by a dollar sign

As Sydney University, finding itself in dire financial straits, lays out plans for drastic cuts to staff conditions and course offerings, the University of Sydney Union (USU) has also quietly begun implementing austerity measures. The organisation, which runs clubs and societies as well as many campus outlets, employs over 250 staff and has a highly casualised workforce made up mostly of students. Since April 6, a large number of these staff have been left unemployed, with the USU announcing that casuals would not be receiving any further shifts. Some full-time staff have also been laid off with little warning, and remaining full-timers have been pressured to take leave, despite a media release on April 3 claiming that all staff “who can feasibly work from home are now doing so and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.” 

For an organisation which claims to be “a non-profit organisation dedicated to giving students a once-in-a-lifetime university experience”, the USU has shown a disgraceful contempt for the full-time employees and student casuals who actually run all of its campus outlets and programs. Any attempts to reduce hours, pay or conditions for staff must be resisted. Instead of looking after its staff, the organisation was slow to provide information about their plans for the coming months. When the information finally did come through that full-time staff, as well as casuals who had been with the organisation for more than a year, would be receiving the JobKeeper supplement, it wasn’t mentioned that a number of staff who had been made redundant after the March 1 JobKeeper eligibility date would be left without any assistance. If at any point the USU decided to reinstate these staff, they would be eligible for the program. 

However, in multiple cases full-time staff who had been stood down simply had their positions eliminated from the organisation, and it seems that these staff are unlikely to be reinstated at the end of the health crisis either. The promises that the USU would “make that payment to all eligible USU employees, including those now being stood down,” have gone silently unfulfilled. In addition, a large proportion of casual staff have been employed for less than a year due to the high turnover in these roles, and are therefore not eligible for JobKeeper, meaning they’ll have no support whatsoever. This includes many outlet and programs staff in particular, but also applies to the many visa workers employed by the USU who are ineligible for either JobKeeper or JobSeeker. A ‘student-run’ organisation throwing such precarious workers on the scrapheap at a time that the call has gone out for no worker to be left behind highlights both the total inadequacies in welfare policy and the reprehensible behaviour of USU management.

Platitudes offered by the Board are worth very little for those who were already relatively precariously employed and are now entirely out of work. While the Board issues statements claiming that the wellbeing of students and staff are their highest priorities, it becomes increasingly clear that this isn’t the case — the management of the USU is seemingly quite happy to place their financial position over the actual interests of the student body or their staff members. These decisions are of course, made secretly with a complete disregard for both transparency and the broader university community’s interests. The USU should ensure that no casual employee is left out of pocket as a consequence of the crisis, and guarantee their employment on the other side of the shutdowns.

Students, already disappointed by recent changes which have left clubs and societies with pitiful levels of funding, should be outraged by the current actions of the USU. Austerity measures are not going to improve campus life, and it is not staff members who should be forced to bear the brunt of this crisis. The JobKeeper allowance should be applied to every staff member applicable, including those who have previously been laid off, and the USU must do more to support those who aren’t eligible for JobKeeper. With Board elections and the Annual General Meeting fast approaching, the USU needs to face up to its shameful treatment of staff and actually prioritise them in their plans for the future.

As SRC Education Officer, I will be moving a motion at the Wednesday May 6 meeting of the SRC to call on student members of the USU Board to move a motion to this effect on the Board. The motion already has the support of current and prospective student Board members, including Honorary Treasurer Maya Eswaran and Honorary Secretary Decheng Sun, and calls for:

  • All staff who have been made redundant due to COVID-19 to be reinstated.
  • All eligible staff to be given access to JobKeeper.
  • All staff ineligible for JobKeeper to have their employment protected.

The fight to prevent our campuses from becoming wastelands of neoliberal attacks doesn’t stop at the university itself. It must extend to student organisations, outlets and every corner of campus where students or staff are being shouldered with the burden of the COVID-19 crisis. As with the broader issue of university funding, the crisis has brought to the fore the fundamentally anti-worker and anti-student structure of user-pays, corporate institutions. Fighting back now is the first step to overhauling the whole rotten neoliberal model. 

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