It is Thursday, about 1pm, and I am sitting in Fisher Library. It is not unlike how Fisher has been over the last couple of days – the usual first week of semester lull. On the other side of campus a group of about 200 is congregated, a mix of University staff, some students in support, and some curious onlookers. The sun is beating down: ‘Spence makes no sense’ placards and Green Left Weeklys have been raised to block it out. Many students on campus are going about their business, not really giving a fuck.
But I give a fuck. My classes were cancelled today and apparently my education is the National Tertiary Education Union’s (NTEU’s) to sacrifice at their will. While I do not completely disagree with some of the NTEU’s grievances, we should, at the very least, question the ethics of a group of individuals who believe that the education we are paying for belongs to them. Even symbolically, it is significant that it is students who are the bargaining chip in the negotiation process between the University and its staff.
It has been repeated ad nauseum, but the particulars of the strike make for surprisingly interesting reading. The NTEU called for the strike in objection to the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) proposed by University management. Most notably, the new EBA includes the removal of restrictions on casual employment, the abolition of the 40-40-20 workload model, and the abolition of work hours restrictions (basically meaning the length of the working week is uncapped).
These are ‘big-ticket issues’. It is understandable that the NTEU is upset about them. It is difficult to expect academics to be able to give the amount of time required to properly teach us if their workload is almost completely uncapped. Then there are ‘small-ticket issues’: the reduction of sick leave entitlements from 50 days to 20, and the unbounding of superannuation benefits (which sat at 17% under the previous EBA).
Somebody has to say it: demanding 50 days of sick leave a year is obscene. There are very few professions anywhere that get 50 days of sick leave. The amount mandated by law is 10 and the University’s proposal is double that.
The conflation of small-ticket issues with big-ticket issues by those striking demands our scrutiny and condemnation. The latter have the potential to legitimately affect the quality of education now and in the future. The former are the over-the-top demands of self-interested brats desperately trying to cling on to benefits they should never have been given in the first place.
However, even if the strike were only based on the big-ticket issues, the act of striking in itself remains ethically dubious. With universities’ high focus on research, it would be more effective for the staff upset with the EBA to place a moratorium on research output until their concerns are addressed. This does not affect the students who have done nothing wrong and have paid a lot of money for a premium education. This strike demonstrates an academic class whose unwillingness to compromise mandated the sacrifice of our education for their own ends. That further strikes have not been ruled out confirms this. It is ethically wrong that our class time is sacrificed for a superannuation package.