For the first time in recent years, opposing tickets will face off in the National Tertiary Education Union’s USyd branch elections. Positions are normally uncontested, but this year, two new groupings—respectively ‘USyd Union Action’ and ‘Members Together’—are competing in the biennial poll.
The NTEU represents all tertiary sector employees. Most universities have a local branch, which elects an executive and committee every two years. These officeholders organise industrial actions, support staff through workplace disputes and negotiate an enterprise agreement on behalf of university employees.
This year, USyd’s NTEU elections will run as a postal vote between August 3 and 24. In total, 15 branch positions are up for grabs: long-term president Kurt Iveson, a founder of Members Together, has been re-elected unopposed, and two autonomous branch committee roles have also been filled by default.
But the remaining 12 positions are contested. These include major roles like branch secretary and the two vice-presidents.
In contrast, no roles were contested during the last round of elections, according to the Australian Electoral Commission, which conducts the vote.
Union Action is responsible for shaking up this status quo. The grouping, which came together after last year’s enterprise agreement negotiations, decided to contest the elections as a ticket—an “unusual” step, as their own website acknowledges.
Key Union Action figures include outspoken English lecturer Nick Riemer, who is running for vice-president (academic staff); Jen Harrison, a research portfolio officer, running for vice-president (general staff); and strategy analyst Josh Hayes, running for secretary.
Riemer, who spoke on Union Action’s behalf, explained the “group is about fostering a campaigning, activist union branch—one that sees our strength […] in our ability to exert political pressure on them through a campaigning membership.”
Members Together appears to have emerged in response to Union Action and is a less formal grouping. It consists of four figures already heavily involved in the Sydney NTEU.
Other than Branch President and Associate Professor of Urban Geography Kurt Iveson, these figures are Professor of Anthropology Linda Connor, running for vice-president (academic staff); current vice-president (general staff) Mark Johnston, a software and assets officer; and School of Economics School Manager Laura Wilson, who is running for secretary.
Iveson, speaking in a personal capacity, explained Members Together’s key concerns: “We’re especially focused on issues of job security, on issues of over-work for both academic and professional staff, and on the underlying problem of managerialism”.
Combating managerialism is also one of Union Action’s policies. In fact, many of the two tickets’ priorities are similar, including growing union membership, engaging members in campaigns, and fighting casualisation.
Despite these similarities, Iveson pointed to “a difference in experience” between the groups. All four Members Together candidates have either served on the executive or have been part of the NTEU’s enterprise agreement negotiation team.
While Riemer, Harrison and another ticket member Christ Hartney have previously served on the Sydney branch committee, Union Action’s experience lies largely in activism.
Another point of difference is the 2017 enterprise agreement, or EA. Iveson, who oversaw negotiations as president, called the EA “the leading agreement in the higher education sector in Australia”, pointing out that it had been “endorsed by a large majority of members” at a 450-strong members’ meeting last year.
Union Action, in contrast, says EA negotiations were settled “before our core demands on job security, wages, and protecting the teaching-research nexus had been won.”
Nonetheless, Union Action vows to work with the EA. Riemer told Honi his ticket will “continue to campaign for the best possible conditions for [NTEU] members” in hopes that the next EA will achieve better outcomes.
Branch democritisation is also looming large as an election issue. According to Riemer, members’ meetings currently function as “information sessions, where the membership are informed about actions” the executive have taken in advance. Union Action, he said, would like to see “members’ meetings carry much more influence” and believes they “should be held roughly monthly.”
But Iveson was adamant that branch democracy is already strong: “The union leadership is fully accountable to the membership—our leadership positions are voted on, and so are our actions.”
He also insisted that members’ meetings are frequent enough: “This year, we have held general members meetings every month during semester.”
The two tickets are in full campaign mode, with Union Action already conducting lunchtime forums and leafleting sessions. All USyd NTEU branch members are automatically enrolled and have been mailed postal ballots. The last day to vote is August 24.