‘Management is dragging the chains’: USyd staff strike amid ‘baffling’ negotiations

Despite 15 months of ongoing enterprise bargaining, University management has yet to put forward substantial offers on key NTEU demands.

Photography by Sam Randle.

University of Sydney staff are on their second 48-hour strike this year after University management has failed to settle on key union demands regarding the preservation of academic workloads, ending casualisation, implementing a real pay rise above inflation and increasing the number of First Nations academics. 

Picket lines were set up across various entrances throughout campus. In comparison to previous strike rounds, there were fewer incidents of strikebreakers crossing picket lines, allowing strikers to enjoy the sun and company of their colleagues for much of the day.

“We’ve definitely made some progress through the last four days of strikes in moderating some of the attacks that management has made,” said NTEU Branch President Nick Riemer.

“We’ve got genuine regulation mechanisms for professional staff workloads, gender affirmation or transition leave, and significant new flexible work and work from home rights, mainly for professional staff,” Riemer said.

NTEU National Councillor (Academic Staff) Dani Cotton told Honi: “When we started out, they wanted to abolish workload committees altogether, which are the only way we can stop overwork and wage theft. We had wins for professional staff’s rehiring rights, where internal advertising of job vacancies are prioritised at some levels.”

Cotton also explained that since the last strikes, management has been more amenable to preserving the 40:40:20 research-teaching-administrative work model, although with a 10 per cent leeway.

“That’s still an attack on the right to research time because they can always bump it down, but to be honest, it’s still a win for the union,” she said.

The University has also offered to hire an additional 300 continuing academic staff since the last strikes in response to the NTEU’s demands to address the casualisation crisis, although union members have stressed that there is still room for growth.

“We still have a way to go with the fight for casuals’ rights and an end to exploitation,” said Branch Committee member Lucy Nicolls. “We’re fighting for sick pay, for superannuation, for pay for all hours worked.”

An extra 300 “continuing academic staff” would increase the number of academic staff from 3514 to 3814. Assuming a baseline of 74,862 students with no increase in enrolment, this would increase the student-to-staff ratio of 19.6, yet fall short of the pre-COVID-19 figure of 17.4 in 2019, according to Honi’s calculations. 

Union membership has also significantly increased as a result of a strong strikes campaign throughout the year, with at least an additional 250 members since January, or a 14 per cent increase.

“I hear people sometimes say that people are discouraged by the strikes, but that’s not the experience I’ve had. I think people are feeling empowered and inspired by people willing to stand up,” Nicolls said.

Branch Committee Member John Buchanan told Honi: “Lots of the union’s recent wins have come through us digging in hard.”

Buchanan also described Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Annamarie Jagose’s claims in a recent university-wide email that the University would not be influenced by industrial action as “just plain wrong”.

“She’s never actually been to a bargaining meeting, and she doesn’t have any firsthand experience of grinding through the details,” he said. 

“They want to run this hardline, but want someone else [such as an external lawyer with no experience working at the University] to do it for them,” he said. “Engaging with management has been very frustrating and baffling.”

Incoming NTEU National General Secretary Damien Cahill criticised University management for being “unreasonable” in negotiations.

“The Union’s demands are reasonable. It is management who are dragging the chains on this for 15 months, when the burning issues of this sector go unaddressed,” Cahill said.

Student education activists have also responded to University’s attempts to enable strikebreakers with online Zoom pickets, with dozens of classes disrupted and a total of eight cancellations.

Students and staff from the Conservatorium of Music were also present picketing Carillon Avenue. 

“Academics and students from the Conservatorium have come to join in solidarity with our main campus colleagues who do have classes,” said Senior Lecturer of Music James Humberstone.

“It’s actually very important to the Conservatorium because more than half of our staff are casuals – they have no route to permanent employment,” he said.

Industrial action will continue tomorrow on Friday 14 October and students are requested to not attend in-person or online classes in solidarity with striking staff on the day.  

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