Your teachers are voting too: NTEU elections prove campus democracy isn’t just for students

It's important that we push towards a broader academic democracy — one where the people whose lives hang in the balance of university decision-making get the most say in how universities are run.

Art by Ellie Stephenson.

For most students, campus elections occur because of student politics. Campaigners coalesce around student unions, student representatives on university boards, the executives of certain large societies, and so on. Primarily, they discuss student issues. It is students who are enfranchised as voters.

But many students likely do not realise that, even as the SRC, NUS, and University Senate elections loom, there have been another set of elections unfolding on campuses around Australia. Thousands of staff at universities across the country have cast their ballots in this year’s National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) elections. 

The elections, which happen every four years, are an opportunity for NTEU members to have their say about the people who represent them within the union, both at a national and a branch level. This year’s elections have seen an unusual degree of contestation. The vote for the National Executive was contested in 2022 for the first time in two decades. At the University of Sydney, a three-way race for key positions within USyd’s NTEU Branch saw fervent discussions about the Union’s strategy.

What’s more, all of this took place in the context of a period of enterprise bargaining on a number of different campuses. University staff have voted to strike and showed up to the picket lines in unprecedented numbers. So, what does this flurry of activity mean for the NTEU? How will the recent elections impact organising? And what is left to be done?

What are the NTEU elections?

The NTEU elections are a fairly large-scale event. The Union has over 28,000 members Australia-wide, and all branch, division, and national voting occurs simultaneously. 

The key national positions up for grabs, which receive a full four-year term, are on the National Executive: President, General Secretary, and Assistant Secretary. Positions on the National Council have two-year terms and are also up for election – either via delegates for branches with more than 300 members, or via direct election for those with less.

Divisions represent the states and territories. Each division elects a Division Secretary, Assistant Secretary, and representatives to the Division Council.

Branches represent individual campuses. They have a committee formed from a Branch President, Vice Presidents (Academic and General), Branch Secretary, and ordinary members. 

On all levels, Indigenous voters elect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives who vote in the Union’s ATSI caucus. Casual academics also elect a designated Casuals Representative who sits on the National Tertiary Casuals Committee.

What happened this year?

This year saw two tickets contest the election for the National Executive – something of a historical anomaly. Not only has it been 20 years since the last contested election; it is only the second contested election in the Union’s history. 

The incumbents ran on the ticket Strong United NTEU. Alison Barnes, an industrial relations researcher hailing from Macquarie University, ran for a second term as NTEU President. Gabe Gooding, who joined the Union as a professional staff member at the University of Western Australia, ran for re-election as Assistant Secretary. USyd academic and current NSW Division Secretary, Damien Cahill, ran for General Secretary, replacing retiring General Secretary Matthew McGowan.

The challengers, A New NTEU, emerged out of a background of dissatisfaction with the direction of the union over the last four years. 

Fahad Ali, a casual academic within the University of Sydney’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences, contested the President position. La Trobe University casual researcher and teacher Anastasia Kanjere contested General Secretary, while Andrew Beitzel, an Indigenous man and professional staff member at the University of Queensland, ran for Assistant Secretary. 

The election was plagued with administrative problems. Many members struggled to access election information or update their voter information ahead of the postal vote, meaning they faced difficulties and delays in obtaining ballots. The Australian Electoral Commission administered the election, eventually extending the deadline to receive ballots in response to the delays.

Perhaps these issues contributed to what was ultimately a low turnout of around 5,000 people — less than 20 per cent of the membership. 

Though the AEC has yet to confirm the result, it appears Strong United have emerged victorious. A New NTEU told Honi they were pleased with their share of the vote.

“We got something like 30 per cent of the vote, which is not insignificant,” said Ali. 

Counting is ongoing for the other elections, so the result of USyd’s potentially tight three-way race remains to be seen. 

Rank and File Action (RAFA) — the grouping behind current Branch President Nick Riemer — ran a number of candidates in the branch election. Notably, USyd historian David Brophy stood for Vice-President (Academic) and Greens Councillor Dylan Griffiths ran for Vice-President (General).

RAFA professes a rank-and-file focus, aiming for a union that builds member engagement in order to sustain activism. They also highlight a focus on social justice, with their website noting: “We believe in taking a stand against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, war and nuclear proliferation, and for causes like climate justice, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander justice, and Palestinian liberation.”

Dani Cotton, a RAFA candidate for Branch Committee and the current USyd NTEU Casuals Representative, described the grouping to Honi as being “left-wing and non-sectarian”, taking in members from a broad-left set of political perspectives, including socialists, Greens members and Labor party members.

NTEU Fightback — featuring current Branch Committee members Alma Torlakovic and Jennifer Huch-Hoogvliet — also frame themselves as a left-wing option. 

Torlakovic told Honi the ticket is “the ‘no concessions’ caucus in the union, meaning we are against making concessions to management on our hard-won wages and conditions. We are for a militant strike campaign to push back against job cuts and the cost-of-living crisis and win a wage rise above inflation – we are the only people fighting for CPI + 2.5 per cent.”

Fightback has received support from Socialist Alternative, although not all members of the ticket are in the organisation. 

The third ticket in the race is Thrive. Their candidate for Vice President (Academic) is incumbent Maryanne Large, who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics and also sits on the University Senate. Their lead candidate for Committee is John Buchanan, who has been involved in the Union’s bargaining team at USyd. 

Thrive’s campaign emphasises the importance of strategy and constructiveness. They told Honi, “We need both persuasion and activism. It’s not a question of either/or, but knowing when to use them, and on whom.” 

The politics of the union: What do the elections represent?

Amid the campaigns, students might be wondering what the NTEU elections mean for education. What kind of political questions are being contested? What visions of higher education are at stake?

An important starting point for understanding the race is the context of the Jobs Protection Framework (JPF). The JPF was proposed by the NTEU in 2020, in the early stages of the pandemic, in a controversial attempt to save jobs that were threatened by COVID-19. It involved staff taking a voluntary pay cut in exchange for the preservation of what the Union estimated at the time would be 12,000 jobs. 

The incumbent National Executive spearheaded the policy and advocated for it extensively. 

The JPF received a great deal of criticism from many NTEU members, who suggested that they should not have to sacrifice their pay and conditions in order to keep their jobs. Two years on, with universities having returned financial surpluses (in some cases, very large one), the JPF appears less than credible. 

Honi spoke to A New NTEU’s Fahad Ali to discuss why the ticket contested the election for National Executive. Ali had both procedural and political critiques of the JPF.

“It was a proposal that was negotiated in secret at the very start of the pandemic… It was presented to members without any process of democratic discussion and what it aimed to do was save a number of jobs in exchange for taking quite a substantial pay cut,” he said. 

“It’s very, very hard to recover from once you have taken a pay cut voluntarily,” he added, “and it’s bad that our impulse was not to fight and advocate for members.”

This strategic disagreement is a key premise of A New NTEU’s campaign — a disagreement about the extent to which the Union should be willing to make deals and sacrifices with university management. 

Ali said that this transcends the disagreement over the JPF: “It sits within a larger constellation of issues within the Union.”

Disputes over how enterprise bargaining should proceed also fit within the constellation, representing another dimension to the practice of trading off particular staff conditions to secure other benefits — a practice some consider insufficiently optimistic about the Union’s capacity to win absolute improvements to workers’ rights. 

Ali pointed to the last round of Enterprise Bargaining negotiations at USyd, which happened in 2017. Following Murdoch University’s successful application to the Fair Work Commission to terminate their EBA, the NTEU at USyd ceded ground to the University. 

“The national leadership of the Union was so freaked out about the termination [at Murdoch], that the General Secretary at the time flew to Sydney to meet with the Vice-Chancellor behind closed doors, pushing the branch towards prematurely terminating our EBA campaign, telling us that we couldn’t be so bold and audacious,” Ali told Honi

Instead of participating in these negotiations, A New NTEU argues the Union should deploy its sizable industrial defence fund to support branches to take part in coordinated industrial action.

Perhaps this focus on branch-level mobilisation is becoming more popular, given it is shared as a key policy goal within Strong United’s platform, which cites the importance of additional funding and training for delegates to assist with branch level democracy. 

Strong United is also responsive to the emergent context of university surpluses, using universities’ great wealth as an impetus to argue for reforms to ensure stable funding and to force universities to abandon corporate strategies like casualisation. 

That the JPF and other instances of the NTEU prioritising deals over building rank-and-file power has incited such a lasting response indicates an appetite for a more democratic union over the next four years. 

Similar debates are occurring at the University of Sydney. 

RAFA candidate Dani Cotton spoke to Honi about the elections. Asked about the role the NTEU should play on university campuses, Cotton argued that the Union needs to be actively mobilising staff. 

“I want a left-wing and a fighting union. We want coordination across the country, taking combined strikes wherever possible, standing up and making serious demands of the Labor government. That means we need to encourage delegates networks and real on the ground organising,” she said. 

Cotton agreed with Ali that the conclusion of the 2017 Enterprise Bargaining was premature.

“We have a very different leadership to the last round of strikes. The last round of strikes were really wound up very rapidly out of a fear that our Enterprise Agreement would be terminated. That meant that issues that we were fighting really strongly for were taken off the agenda,” she said. 

She added that the National Executive challenge reflects the frustration across campuses with an insufficiently combative union.  

“That challenge came, in my view, from the JPF. So it’s welcome, but I think we should also be frank because there has been a real dissatisfaction, there are some issues that need to be dealt with.”

Representing Thrive, Maryanne Large told Honi that many of the problems facing higher education come from a failure to engage democratically with staff. 

“At heart, many of these problems stem from a top-down University management that often does not understand what is happening on the ground. But our members certainly do,” she said. 

“The University has become increasingly managerial/corporate in the last 20 years. Power is dominantly held by a small group of people who are not well connected to ordinary staff, or how the University actually works. There must be a mechanism for staff to exert genuine influence in the direction of the University. The Union is that mechanism. There really isn’t any other.”

Thrive’s conception of the role of the NTEU identified that the Union has an obligation to work for individual members, too, by defending them against problems like wage theft and discrimination.

An emphasis for Thrive is growing the Union, and they contend that acrimony between different political factions is counterproductive to that end. 

“Differences of opinion help us to explore the problems and develop more creative solutions, but when the conflict is about processes or personalities, it weakens us. It really damages the Union,” Large told Honi

When asked how the election’s timing – amid an EBA campaign – had affected bargaining, Large said, “it has required people to stand against each other when they should be standing together. 

“It has taken time and focus that would have better been spent on other issues, including the EBA and change management proposals.”

Alma Torlakovic from Fightback, argued to Honi that only her ticket had effectively stood up for radicalism within the enterprise bargaining campaign. 

“We do not have illusions that weaker forms of industrial action like work bans are going to win the log of claims we voted on,” Torlakovic said, “NTEU Fightback are the reason we have had so many days of strike this year. We have consistently pushed for militant strike action on the branch committee and in members’ meetings, shifting the terrain of debate to the left.”

While agreeing with the other tickets that growing the Union mattered, Torlakovic suggested that a policy of aggressively pursuing strikes is the only way to really win over new members. 

“People join the Union when it is fighting to improve wages or conditions. This is why so many people join during bargaining, and after strikes and pickets,” Torlakovic said. 

The election at USyd has seen heated contestation, including on social media, between members of the Fightback and RAFA tickets. Fightback has claimed that RAFA, despite its ostensible leftism, has been overly cautious throughout NTEU debates about their bargaining strategy. 

In a recent article in Red Flag, Torlakovic contended that RAFA members had opposed Fightback proposals for longer and more frequent strikes, and condemned the strategy of administration bans that has been proposed by RAFA representatives. 

Cotton rejected Fightback’s characterisation, saying: “I think that this election has had a shocking amount of outright lies… the degree of the Fightback lies is like, we started trying to respond to all of them and it just sounds crazy.”

“Our record speaks for itself,” she added.

The future of democracy: elections and the Union’s future

All tickets in the election emphasised the need to engage with staff at universities, identifying that the structural silencing of staff voices is foundational to the exploitative and academically defunct character of Australian universities. 

In one sense, then, the NTEU elections do represent a valuable mechanism for staff to envision a better system of higher education. They are also an accountability mechanism and a health check for the union, to ensure that it is aptly reflecting staff’s values and strategic preferences. 

In addition to acting as an expression of frustration with policies like the Jobs Protection Framework, elections are also an opportunity to shift the images people hold of a unionist and an academic. 

Fahad Ali discussed his identity as a casual academic and a gay Palestinian man. “Someone like me running for a position like this doesn’t happen. There has been very little diversity,” he said.

“I would hope that by running we’ve demonstrated that you can run, you can get a good result, and hopefully we can one day have a casual academic who takes on a leadership position. I really hope that it becomes customary.”

However, this year’s NTEU elections are certainly not the be all and end all of union democracy. 

Notwithstanding the administrative issues with the election, which have obvious implications for the robustness of democracy, a real challenge is to lift the turnout of the elections so that they more wholly reflect the sentiment of the membership. 

The candidates were keen to emphasise that Union democracy transcends the elections every four years — it permeates the way decisions are made on a more quotidian basis. 

“We have strikes bringing people to the same picket line to stand together. I think that unity across the campus is the perfect basis for us to start talking about strategy, to talk about what kind of union we need,” said Cotton.

“The thing that most improves democracy in the Union, which is not better balloting procedures or better chairing of meetings (though both would be welcome), but winning more rank-and-file unionists to the perspective that serious industrial action, i.e. strikes and pickets, is the way to win our demands. The more active we are in fighting the management, the more democratic the union will be,” said Torlakovic. 

Where do students fit in?

Naturally, the NTEU elections are not at the forefront of most students’ minds (we’ve got our own elections to consider). However, staff democracy is not nearly as distant to students’ lives as it might seem. 

Notably, students and staff are not always different people. Some students are also casual academics — a great many of your regular teachers are studying postgraduate degrees. Many students go on to conduct research, and still more aspire to, but are deterred by poor working conditions within academia. 

The candidates were eager to emphasise that student participation matters deeply in enacting staff democracy.

“What I hope that we will begin to see is a greater realisation that what the Union is doing has direct relevance for students in terms of the quality of their education. We say that but I think we need to go deep into the reasons why that is,” Ali told Honi

“An approach of solidarity between students and staff is absolutely essential… We need to say the real problem [with higher education] is at the top of the university,” Cotton said. 

Ultimately, democracy on campus involves, but transcends, union elections. It’s really important that we seriously, thoughtfully, and honestly consider competing visions of higher education and union activity. Beyond that, it’s important that we push towards a broader academic democracy — one where the people whose lives hang in the balance of university decision-making get the most say in how universities are run.

To do that, students must fully value the role of staff (both academic and professional) in allowing universities to function. Top-down university decision-making undermines us all.