University of Sydney (USyd) staff strikes set to occur later this semester need the support of students to be successful. At a student and staff forum organised by the Education Action Group (EAG) last Wednesday, National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) USyd branch president Nick Riemer put it simply: “We are stuffed without you”.
Workers’ rights have been trampled on throughout the pandemic. But to turn the tide of this offensive, workers can’t just be victims: they need to fight back. At USyd, student solidarity with staff is absolutely essential in giving NTEU members the confidence to do this.
Across Australia, workers continue to face a one sided class war. Basic rights have been lost — such as the right not to be exposed to a disease at work — while corporations like Harvey Norman, and billionaires like Gina Rhinehart have massively increased their wealth. For the rest of us, rising petrol, food and housing prices paired with stagnating or falling wages are creating a cost of living crisis.
The recent strikes of public sector employees in NSW are a breath of fresh air. Nurses and midwives have been on strike twice in the last two months; illegally in both cases. School teachers also took illegal strike action last December and transport workers went on strike this past Monday. At Wednesday’s student and staff forum, SRC Education Officer Deaglan Godwin argued staff at USyd should take inspiration from these recent displays of militancy, and from the stunning victory of rank and file trade unionists in New York who recently unionised their Amazon warehouse in Staten Island — the first to be unionised in America.
Even so, the level of class struggle in society is low compared to the challenges facing Australian workers. For the last thirty years, instead of involving the union membership through industrial action, the dominant strategy of the leaders of Australian trade unions has been to rely on bargains struck between top officials and the bosses. Unsurprisingly, this strategy has seen the number of trade union members decline from its high point in 1976, when over 50% of workers were unionised, to less than 14% today.
For NTEU members, there is ample reason to go on strike. Over 20% of all university employees lost their jobs in the past two years. The top demand in the union’s log of claims is for job security: no more forced redundancies. With 40,000 fewer workers in the sector, the intensity of work has increased for the employees who remain. NTEU Branch Committee member Joel Griggs has noted it is near impossible to mark 4,500 words in an hour, the rate used to calculate tutors’ pay. What was the solution proposed by former Arts Dean Annamarie Jagose when challenged on this by staff? “Perhaps the traditional long form essay is outdated”.
University management’s confidence to attack even basic functions of the University, such as academic writing and feedback, has swelled over two years of all-out war on staff and students. Attacks like these can sometimes demoralise workers instead of making them more militant. Fortunately, staff at USyd have a long history of fighting back; there were strikes on this campus during the last two rounds of enterprise bargaining in 2013 and 2017.
In 2013, it had been ten years since the last strike. This period of inactivity had neutralised traditions of militancy and reduced the numbers of active union members. According to NTEU Branch Committee member Alma Torlakovic, what passed for a ‘picket line’ before 2013 was a dozen union members standing at the entrances to campus handing out flyers to staff and students as they streamed past. The most common reason given for not supporting strikes was that it supposedly inconvenienced students.
According to Torlakovic, only a campaign of “old school unionism” could cut through this conservatism: activists held campaign meetings where they thought up slogans, painted placards to put up around the picket lines, and debated whether to call co-workers who broke the picket lines scabs. Importantly, they mobilised students to support their campaign, and realised students were a significant base of support. This collective organising created a sense of camaraderie that was essential to the 2013 campaign’s ultimate victory, defeating management’s plans to slash sick leave entitlements and abolish the clause mandating 40% of academic staff’s pay goes to research time – a proposal staff continue to strike against today.
Later on, in the middle of the strike campaign in 2017, management tried to cut the union out of the bargaining process altogether by sending out an email to all staff asking employees individually whether they wanted to accept the university’s offer. Union members received the email while attending a stop work meeting called to plan a 24-hour strike scheduled for two weeks later. Management’s dishonest tactics backfired. This time, the picket lines were enforced. Hundreds of staff and students picketted university entrances. Cars were turned away and the campus appeared deserted. The union recruited hundreds of new members throughout this campaign, dozens of which joined on the day of the strike.
The role of students must be to refuse to be management’s ally while they continue to attack striking staff. Instead, we have to back our University staff and teachers all the way — the 2013 and 2017 actions have taught us this. That is why the EAG has been organising leafleting events to tell other students about the strikes, postering campus with NTEU posters, and making lecture announcements to keep spreading the word. Last week’s staff and student forum was only the first of what will hopefully be many meetings co-hosted by the EAG and NTEU. As SRC President Lauren Lancaster put it, “we need to reinvigorate student unionism and throw our weight behind staff”.
Every student who cares about workers’ rights and about the future of their education can play a part in the strike solidarity campaign. We need as many students involved as possible. Student unionism, like trade unionism, is powerful when it relies not on a small minority but an active majority. Talk to your classmates about the strikes and make sure they know they should support them. During the upcoming strikes, students must not go to class — including on zoom. Students should go to the staff picket instead. Encourage your tutors to vote in the protected action ballot for all forms of industrial action.
Sign and share the solidarity open letter here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSf67p_D3cj0unqv6z0WuUX12ld9fanAIB9fIL0aVNsb4ihl7w/viewform
More importantly, come to the weekly EAG meetings to stay up to date with the campaign. The next one will be on Thursday at 1PM at the New Law Building.
Sign up to the EAG here:https://www.facebook.com/groups/316966526475582