For a second day, despite unrelenting wind and rain, over 500 students and staff from the University of Sydney persevered with a historic 48-hour strike in protest of poor staff working conditions. The strike was called by the USyd Branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), after 96% of branch members voted to take protected industrial action following unsuccessful communications between staff and management in negotiating the new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA). The historic strike highlighted wage theft, precarious employment and high rates of casualisation as major problems faced by the tertiary education sector.
Demands of striking staff included a fair pay increase, better working loads, an end to forced redundancies, improved parental-leave rights, and enforceable targets for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment. The strike aimed to disrupt ‘business as usual’ for the University to draw attention to the mistreatment of staff — 52% of whom are employed under precarious casual contracts, and many experiencing wage-theft.
Hard pickets formed at a number of major University entrances: Ross Street Gate, Footbridge Theatre, Victoria Park steps, University Avenue facing Parramatta Road, and City Road at Eastern Avenue, Barff Road and Fisher Road.
Morale remained high despite increased efforts to break the picket lines compared to Day 1 of striking. Roaming pickets disrupted scab classes and lectures which proceeded in defiance of strikers both in person and over Zoom throughout the day.
Nick Riemer, President of the NTEU USyd Branch, described the strikes as a “stupendous success, we’ve shut the University down.”
“We’ve seen an extraordinary mobilisation from staff and students… I think the University’s attempt to say striking will make no difference to them just shows exactly how disrespectful and contemptuous they are,” Riemer told Honi.
Pickets successfully intercepted numerous cars and people attempting to enter campus, with students holding hard pickets, arms linked. Both students and staff could be seen singing and dancing on the picket lines, chanting “When workers’ rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!” and “No one in, no one out, shut the Uni down!”.
At the Ross Street Gate students and staff sang anti-fascist anthems such as ‘Bella Ciao’ and ‘The Internationale’ with accompaniment from Associate Professor Ron Clark on the french horn.
Speaking to the 40/40/20 model, Clark told Honi that he was striking because “over the years, things have got worse and worse at the University…I’m passionate about my research, I want to be doing my research”.
A strong police presence could be seen at various picket locations; in particular, a group of riot squad officers were seen aiding scab efforts in breaking the picket line at the Ross Street Gate. On multiple occasions, police officers were witnessed escorting individuals through the picket in both directions. A number of short-lived scuffles broke out between picketers and police, and between picketing students and scabbing students.
Giving an impassioned speech at Ross Street Gate, Riemer spoke to the Union’s demands for Indigenous employment; “When [the NTEU] say: Give us a number! Give us a number of the First Nations teachers you’re going to employ by the end of the next agreement, suddenly, [University management] go dumb.
“Suddenly their managerial technobabble disappears and they’re like this [blows a raspberry]”
Riemer also highlighted the Union’s demands for “serious gender affirmation leave for our transgender and non-binary staff.
“Lets just think, what a massive contribution it would be to Australian politics if at the University of Sydney…we achieved a serious win for transgender people who find themselves at the brunt of every shameful political attack.”
At the Victoria Park picket, staff were arm-in-arm turning away students attempting to enter the grounds. Jimmy, a Gender and Cultural Studies casual picketing at the park, told Honi “I believe that when we take collective action and when we fight, we can win.”
Signs at the picket read: “Real pay rise,” “Camperdown is a union town,” “Put the bureaucrats in the bin! Action not admin!,” and “Professors over profit.”
Additionally, members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) were present in union solidarity at several pickets — and helped run the vital midday sausage-sizzle on Eastern Avenue.
Erima Dall, an MUA member, told Honi that their union “always supports workers that are fighting for their rights and fighting for better conditions because those conditions flow-on to the entire workforce.”
“The casualisation at Sydney Uni is a massive problem both for the casuals that work here, but it also helps suppress wages across the whole economy — the MUA is no stranger to casualisation,” said Dall.
A number of other union members were also present from the Rail, Tram & Bus Union (RTBU) and the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU).
The majority of pickets concluded at 1:00pm, as contingents from various locations across campus converged on Eastern Avenue for a final speak-out to wrap up the day.
The open-mic began with Hannah, a Gender and Cultural Studies student, speaking to the state of disability support services at the University: “…they are shockingly poor, I have countless friends forced out of their degrees because of the lack of understanding and support they received from a system that crushes us with red tape.”
Yells of “Shame!” broke-out across the crowd.
“I am standing here today in support of all tutors and lecturers doing the real work at this University,” they said.
Member of the USyd NTEU Branch Committee, Alma Torlakovic spoke next: “When we all walk back into work tomorrow, we need to hold our heads so high because it is our cause that is righteous, we are in the moral right today.”
In reference to scabs, Torlakovic said “Do you know what an offence it is to cross picket lines? When workers are losing wages, when some of our [NTEU] members will go starving?”
The SRC President, Lauren Lancaster, then gave a speech outlining the success of the pickets and outlining their motivation: “We are here to defend a vision of radical, democratic, accessible education…
“You are here because worker’s power can be used to fight back against injustice… we strike to resist and shatter this system of disempowerment, to speak up for collective interests.”
“I want all staff here to know that students are with you every step of the way because we fight and we win,” Lancaster concluded.
USyd SRC Education Officer, Deaglan Godwin, told Honi that the success of the strikes can be put “down to the hard and relentless work of rank and file activists in the NTEU and student activists from the Education Action Group” and that “students were vitally important in bringing energy and militancy to the picket lines”.
After the strike ended, Riemer told Honi that “…the student mobilisation was fantastic, both days and the strike overall have just been an unmitigated success.”
There is a USyd NTEU bargaining meeting next Tuesday with University management and, according to Riemer, “[the NTEU] is very interested to hear what they have to say, and if we don’t get the movement we need, which is what we anticipate, our members have voted to go out on strike [again].”
At this stage, unless there is sufficient progress made at the bargaining table, strikes are set to continue in Week 13 on 24 May; and only this afternoon, the NTEU members at UTS have applied for a Protected Action Ballot order to initiate industrial action.
Picket line at Footbridge Theatre, Parramatta Road and a car attempting to enter the Barff Road picket line facing City Road.