‘Where is the respect or integrity?’: USyd at standstill for historic fourth strike of year

Staff and students joined forces to restrict access to Camperdown and Conservatorium campuses today in support of the NTEU’s ongoing enterprise bargaining campaign.

Photography by Thomas Sargeant.

Staff and students gathered to block all major entrances to the University of Sydney’s Camperdown and Conservatorium campuses from 7am today. The picket lines formed for the fourth time this year as the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) continues its enterprise bargaining campaign. 

Speaking on the picket line at Eastern Avenue, USyd history lecturer David Brophy described the role of the strike in shutting down the University. “We want this campus to be a ghost town,” he said. “We want to make it really difficult for people to come on campus, we want them to hear from not just one of us, but ideally many of us, as to why they shouldn’t come onto campus.”

The NTEU’s demands include a pay rise above inflation, an end to forced redundancies and casualisation, protection of the 40/40/20 research model, gender affirmation leave, and enforcement targets for First Nations employment.

“We want a University that actually cares about staff overworking, that looks after students properly,” NTEU USyd Branch President Nick Riemer said.  

Photography by Thomas Sargeant

A total of seven pickets formed across the University at City Road, Victoria Park, Ross Street Gate, Footbridge, Carillon Avenue, Abercrombie Business School, Redfern Boardwalk, and the Charles Perkins Centre, as well as the Con. 

According to Riemer in the day’s afternoon speeches, since the last two rounds of strikes the union has “won workload control mechanisms for professional staff for the first time, and softened management’s attack on the teaching-research nexus and on academic workload regulation”. 

Today’s strikes are an effort to “speed things up” in negotiations with management.

Photography by Thomas Sargeant

Vehicles honk in support, pedestrians turned away 

The strike was well-attended by staff and students, with dozens of strikers already at Eastern Avenue just after 7am. The energy was bolstered by honks of support from passing cars along City Road and Carillon Avenue.

Riemer praised the turnout, noting record registrations for the picket line and announcing that “our branch now has more members than we have had for absolutely years” thanks to ongoing mobilisation and strike action. 

Limited numbers of strikebreakers attempted to enter campus. Some were successfully turned away, as strikers explained the purpose of the strike and encouraged them to stand in solidarity with staff. Others attempted (sometimes succeeding) to push through with aggression.

Photography by Thomas Sargeant

At Ross Street gate, strikebreakers attempted to push through, climb pointed fences, and approach via car before being redirected by police. 

Honi also received reports of police following strikers who continued to speak with strikebreakers after they crossed the picket line. At least one student was told that if they touched a strikebreaker they would be charged with assault. When the striker responded that they were only speaking with the strikebreaker, they were threatened with a harassment charge.

Speakers highlight workload issues, the need to escalate strikes

Strikers consolidated at the City Road picket for chants and speeches at 2pm. Riemer commenced the session, applauding the turnout.

“This campaign is not in vain. We have seen movement from those people up there since our last strike. 

“[Management are] telling us that they’re gonna come at us with a serious de-casualisation deal.”

However, a serious deal will require the instatement of 880 permanent teaching and research jobs to make up for unpaid work done by casual staff at USyd, according to Riemer. Its $1.04bn surplus in 2021 suggests the University has the reserves to fund these roles. 

Riemer emphasised the issue of creating a university space that is safe for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, students, and members of the community, citing recent threats to the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence (NCIE) in Redfern. “[The NTEU won’t let] one more centimetre of Aboriginal Land be robbed,” he said. 

Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi condemned a university system where “staff have to fight for a basic right to pay in line with inflation” and “the neoliberal imperatives of productivity and efficiency” which have facilitated corporate attacks on higher education. 

She called for government investment in universities and the reversal of Morrison’s Job-ready Graduates Package, which more than doubled the cost of arts degrees in 2020. She also demanded the Albanese Government scrap Stage 3 tax cuts which disproportionately benefit those earning over $200,000, urging reinvestment in public welfare and education. 

Photography by Thomas Sargeant

Nikki Wedgwood, a long term member of the NTEU’s USyd Branch and Lecturer in Health Sciences at the University, described the impact of increasing workload on her personal and professional life. Wedgwood has developed an immunodeficiency disorder as a result of stress and described how overwork has harmed her family relationships.

“My youngest daughter tell[s] me she doesn’t bother coming to me for help or advice because I’m never available. I’m always too busy working,” she said. 

“I will never forgive the management for that.” 

Wedgwood also voiced opposition to the top-down, hierarchical operational model of the University which positions out-of-touch, corporate bosses to make decisions affecting how academic staff complete their work. 

“I am so sick of new processes being forced from above onto those of us who do the research, who do the teaching, by people who do not,” she said. 

Next, Amy Griffiths, School Manager of Languages and Culture, called out USyd for not mirroring the values which they claim to embody, and which the NTEU is fighting for.  

“Where is the diversity or the inclusion?” she asked. “Where is the respect or the integrity, when they refuse to come to the bargaining table to talk? Where is the openness or the engagement with staff when management sends paid legal advisors from interstate into a bargaining room?” 

“Where is the respect for professional staff that love the university so much and want to do their jobs that they take unpaid leave.

“I know for my staff that are renters in Sydney, it’s a really expensive day,” she said, referring to the fact professional staff sacrificed pay to attend the strike.

Casuals Representative on the NTEU Branch Committee Dani Cotton spoke to how poor staff working conditions erode the quality of students’ education, and urged the escalation of industrial action. 

“It is an outrage that we have to do unpaid work, giving feedback at a ridiculous rate of 4,500 words an hour,” she said.

“We do not have time to give decent feedback, no paid time to talk to our students, to reply to emails, to have meetings, to have the actual quantity education that university should be about.” 

USyd SRC Education Officer Lia Perkins, denounced the “right-wing idiots on Facebook who don’t support the strikes”. 

“We have been completely stuffed by the government and university management. This is a university with a 1.4 billion surplus, largely from stealing over 60 million dollars from the casual workers,” said Perkins. 

Mark LeVine, Professor at the University of California Irvine, lauded the presence of the NTEU at USyd and Australian universities. 

“At the University of California… the professors haven’t even figured that out yet. You guys are still light-years ahead of us,” he said. 

Finally, Vince Caughley, Assistant Secretary of the NTEU’s NSW division, lamented attacks by the NSW government on the freedom to take industrial action, including attempts to block planned industrial railway action in July. 

He also mentioned the Swinburne University of Technology standing down staff members taking industrial action with no pay last week. “Strike action is a fundamental human right and we need to win it back,” he said. 

Politicians, union members, and student politicians return

Akin to the strikes in Semester 1, Greens politicians Mehreen Faruqi and David Shoebridge both made an appearance on the strike. 

Shoebridge thanked strikers for coming out, remarking on the importance of strike action “not just for yourselves as students and teachers, but for the future of this country, because the future of this country lies in higher education.” 

NSW Labor MP Mark Buttigieg also thanked strikers for doing “what working people have to do in this country.” 

Similarly, USyd student representatives were present across the picket lines. 

University of Sydney Union (USU) President Cole Scott-Curwood, who is also a casual academic and NTEU member, told Honi, “it’s very fundamental that staff working conditions are student learning conditions… and with that fundamental fact in mind, I don’t think there’s any excuse for students to cross the picket or not support the demands of staff.”

SRC President Lauren Lancaster also emphasised the connections between staff and student learning conditions.

“All those [NTEU] demands mean that the University is compelled to treat staff like actual human beings, and when that happens, our classes get better, the feedback we get on assessments get better and the environment we’re all operating in… improves.”

Lancaster explained the radical history behind the formation of the Footbridge walkway as evidence of the power of student and staff action, “Students linked arms across Parramatta Road because they were sick of walking or running. And they did that for days on end until the university built a walkway.”

NUS Education Officer and UNSW student Luc Velez added that support for the strike is indispensable, as USyd sets the tone for a lot of the industrial action to come at other universities around the country. 

SRC Education Officer Lia Perkins was also present and reinforced the shared purpose of students and staff. 

Photography by Thomas Sargeant

Members from the Rail, Tram, and Bus Union (RTBU) and Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) also attended picket lines in solidarity with the NTEU and university staff, with the MUA hosting a barbeque to feed hungry strikers at City Road.

“What you guys are doing has really inspired me, I think we need more of that on the railway – more action,” said an RTBU member.

Morale high on the pickets

Photography by Thomas Sargeant

Many staff and union members were in high spirits at today’s picket lines, aided by good weather and camaraderie with their colleagues.

“There’s much less foot traffic coming onto campus compared to previous strikes, which were a success,” said Ben Miller, an academic within the former Department of Writing Studies, which was recently merged with the Department of English to form the Discipline of English as part of the University’s widely-opposed Future FASS plan

“There’s also an established sense of solidarity among the staff. We were here, we’ve been here for several days already, we know each other, and we’re building a good sense of what it means to fight back,” Miller said.

Claire Parfitt, a permanent staff member stationed at the Footbridge picket, also described the pickets as “really fun”.

“Being on picket lines with your colleagues, it generates a different kind of relationship to the one we have in the workplace,” she said.

Similarly, NTEU member David Allen described it as an “open political space” where staff and students alike could discuss their experiences and different ideas for fighting for better working conditions.

At the Victoria Park picket, NTEU casuals representative Dani Cotton spoke about the importance of pickets as a negotiation strategy.

“It enforces the democratically made decision by union members, and ensures that we’re not undercut by a small few who wanna benefit from what we’re fighting for without taking the sacrifice themselves,” Cotton said.

Picketers also spoke about the most important issues facing various casual, professional, and academic staff at the University.

“We want casuals to get sick pay, equal superannuation and fair pay for the hours they’ve worked,” Cotton said. “On the last of those, management is saying a hard no. That’s an example of how hard management is playing this, and why we are being forced to take strike action.”

Professional staff member Marius Mather said that it was important for staff to have a pay rise in line with the rate of inflation, and that professional roles needed to be advertised internally first to existing staff.

Murray Thomson, a lecturer in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, emphasised the importance of preserving research time for academics.

“We’re supposed to be teaching our students as researchers. How can we teach researchers unless we’re doing it ourselves?” he said.

Strikers racked up plenty of successes on the day, convincing numerous staff and students to turn around and go home. In one case, a law professor led strikers to his class, in which only five students were in attendance. Strikers convinced the students to go home, after which the law professor joined the NTEU as well as the pickets.

Strikers’ activities weren’t limited to forming pickets at campus entrances. Throughout the day,  contingents of students interrupted zoom classes as well, forcing some to shut down. Tutors communicated to affected students that their attendance grades would remain unimpacted. One student told Honi that he spent the first part of the day on a roaming digital picket, disrupting at least ten classes.

A group of students also shut down a Wesley college soccer match by occupying the field with signs and banners. After learning of the game due to referees crossing the picket line, over the course of half an hour strikers reportedly explained the merits of shutting down campus to convince the players to end their game. Players eventually agreed, but not before offering to take a knee or a moment of silence instead.

The Con 

At the Con, strikers performed music and played games at the entrance to the building. Taking advantage of sunny weather, students and staff threw wooden blocks in a lively game of Finska while also handing out flyers to attempted strikebreakers, led by picket captain and Senior Music Education lecturer James Humberstone.

Photography by Thomas Sargeant

Staff and students were also provided with sheet music, with Conservatorium casual academic in Musicology, Angharad Davis, leading strikers in performances of Public Workers Stand Together and Solidarity Forever. Clearly missing a day of class had no adverse impact on their music ability, unsurprisingly outshining similar renditions across Camperdown campus.

Photography by Thomas Sargeant

“At the Con [staff] have the highest workloads per hour of pay at the entire university,” said SRC Intercampus Officer and Con student Alexander Poirier. “The Chinese Music Ensemble is the second largest ensemble at the Con and we have sub-par instruments and not enough for all those students who are there.”

Strike planned for Open Day

A second day of strike action is planned for USyd’s Open Day next week on 27 August. 

“[Open day] is going to be our opportunity to disrupt the university selling itself and actually put the message of the reality of what’s going on on the ground at this university… to prospective students and explain why they should be supporting us in this strike,” said Dani Cotton. 

Photography by Thomas Sargeant