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‘Get a fucking grip, read a fucking book’: NUS EdCon Day 2

Honi ventures back into the thick of EdCon.

Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Luckily for me, I didn’t attend NUS EdCon Day 2 with the expectation of any real development over Day 1, so while you could accuse me of a degree of masochism, I haven’t quite reached insanity. 

Today’s efforts continued the Conference’s debates over the NUS’ strategy, with Socialist Alternative once again clashing with Labor supporters over the prospects of the ALP to create change for students.

Students and the NTEU 

The first plenary of the day saw panelists discuss the relationship between students and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), drawing on the 2022 USyd strikes.  

USyd Education Officer Lia Perkins explained why student support is necessary in the NTEU Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) campaign, saying: “in the EBA negotiation, management are putting forward their vision of what the University should be, and it’s really casualised… we either get worse feedback or staff are completely overworked, underpaid and have their wages stolen.’

Co-Officer Deaglan Godwin added, “we [students and staff] have a shared enemy, and that is university management and the corporate structure of the University.” 

Godwin continued that the NUS should have a stake in wage negotiations, saying that the NTEU’s “ambitious pay claims will flow onto other workers.” 

When asked how organisers had built support for the strikes, USyd NTEU member Alma Torlakovic explained, “We also insisted that it’s not just a strike, it’s a strike and a picket… The purpose of a picket is that first of all it’s a public defence of our campaign.”

“It’s not just that strikes are called from above, but actually have to be built from below,” Godwin added.

Panelists also discussed their strategies for convincing people not to cross the picket line.

USyd lecturer David Brophy answered that it was important to illustrate the stakes of the strike. “There’s no neutrality in a picket line situation… when people are crossing a picket line they’re saying that they’re comfortable with the fact that management will win,” he said. “Are you comfortable with the quality of life for staff at this university going backwards? Is that something that you think your trip to the library is more important than?”

Godwin, however, argued that some students could not be won over on the picket line, making it important to turn them away: “There are people we can’t convince, and when we can’t convince them, we need to actually enforce the democratic decisions of staff”.

Student voices on Palestine 

Next up was a workshop discussing the importance of academic and cultural boycotts of Israel, led by Sydney Festival Boycott organiser Amal Naser and Melbourne Queer Film Festival Boycott organiser Muhib Nabulsi. 

Unfortunately, the beginning of this thorough and insightful presentation was marred by the familiar sounds of stupol screaming, after SAlt members descended upon the room to chastise Grindies members for attending this session instead of a concurrent one about union strategy. 

“Oh my God, Owen, give it up man,” USyd SRC President Lauren Lancaster was heard shouting at Owen Marsden-Readford, before SAlt and Grindies bigwigs eventually settled down so we could actually hear the talk. 

Naser explained that academic and cultural institutions are complicit in Israeli oppression of Palestinians, because they help to “conceal the active apartheid structures.” 

Nabulsi reflected on the process of organising the  boycott of the MQFF, saying that cultural organisations’ responses to boycotts “show exactly their constitution, what is driving them, and that is entirely maintaining their funding from the government and private funding, and there’s no accountability or community.”

Considering the Sydney Festival Boycott earlier this year, Naser emphasised the connections between Palestinian and First Nations organisers, who were the first to pull out of the Festival: “What we learned from the Sydney Festival campaign is the power of transnational movements.”

She added that the structures of colonial violence “happening here in so-called Australia to First Nations people [are also faced by] Palestinians.”

During question time students turned to the recision of a pro-Palestine motion by Labor councillors on the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU). UMSU President Sophie Nguyen (NLS) acknowledged that the decision was regrettable, saying: “the decision that we took was terrible in terms of how it appeared, the Labor Party position on Israel is terrible.’

“We experienced pressure from a certain faction in the Right, and they escalate it to the Party… We are in a position that I agree is embarrassing,” she continued, after being asked  whether the Party had pressured NLS to vote against the motion. 

“What we’re struggling with is finding Palestinian voices to lead the campaign and the conversation, it keeps getting overpowered by white activists,” Nguyen concluded.

Naser responded that solidarity for Palestinians shouldn’t be influenced by party politics: “Don’t not pass it because you have some factional beef… I don’t care if your party said don’t vote on this motion… you’re going to look good in the history books and they’re not.”

Student organising for public housing

The next panel focused on the importance of safeguarding public housing, featuring Emily Bullock from Hands Off Glebe, Andrew Chuter from Action for Public Housing, and Sam Adams from the South East Queensland Union of Renters. 

Like the previous session, this talk was interrupted by a series of furious Trotskyite whispers that quickly became shouts, before SAlt and Grindies bigwigs were relegated outside so the talk could proceed. 

When the furore had settled, Bullock emphasised the importance of insisting on public housing: “Community housing is privatisation by stealth… community housing has more controls over selecting tenants and have limited leases, it is not what tenants want and not what society wants.”

Chuter observed that, “Housing intersects extremely strongly with the cost of living.” 

He noted that the Department of Defence had built affordable housing in Alexandria for its employees at  around a quarter of the cost of privately-owned apartments in the area, suggesting that the government could opt to provide substantially cheaper housing easily. 

Adams argued that party politics cannot solve the housing crisis: “We believe that the only way to get what we need is to fight for it, to have mass movements… the role for student unions and trade unions is to help us to fight.”

Discussion touched on how to challenge the stigma associated with living in public housing, with Chuter suggesting that “We need to move to the concept of universal public housing, that’s available to anyone who wants it… your Medicare card isn’t stigmatised, public schooling or public transport isn’t stigmatised.”

ANU SAlt member Grace Hall targeted the Labor Party as failing to provide public housing, saying: “There’s one landlord – Albo – while he has done speeches, he’s a perpetrator in the destruction of public housing.”

Hall continued that the NUS therefore had an obligation to avoid “collaborationist politics” with the ALP.  

How to defeat scab unions 101

The next session, led by NUS President Georgie Beatty, La Trobe Student Union (LTSU) VP Eric Seychell and LTSU General Secretary Skye Griffiths, discussed the student campaign to shut down the La Trobe Student Association (LTSA) which was used to undermine the LTSU. 

In Beatty’s characteristically theatrical style, the presentation discussed the absurdity of the LTSA’s dysfunction. “They spent 56 fucking thousand dollars on advertising, are you fucking kidding me? 56K? Why not!” Beatty said.

Speakers highlighted the way in which the saga had produced a semblance of factional unity: “Every single faction in LaTrobe was working together… we were making sure we were all united in this fight.”

“Basically this happened as a direct result of VSU,” Beatty added as another key lesson.

Comedically, when asked to name and share what groupings had been barriers to the success of the campaign, the panel pointed to the Bendigo Dentists Society (“that’s not a joke”).

“Fuck the dentists,” they concluded.

The session concluded with USyd’s Maddie Clark suggesting that the LTSA situation should prove that: “The NUS should not just be another scab union, it should be a fighting union”.

How Labor neoliberalised education

The final talk attended by this recapper was delivered by Socialist Alternative, but was extremely well attended by the Labor factions, who assembled to wade into the value of engaging with the ALP. 

UoW SAlt member and former USyd Education Officer Jack Mansell argued to the meeting that “if you expect them [the ALP] to listen to you because of how clever your argument is, you’re always going to get destroyed… just opening the door [of management] is seen as a success in this collaborationist model.”

“Even when they do accept our demands, our role is not to trade away the things that we want, but fight for everything.”

SAlt’s most reliable interlocutor Mikaela Pappou called the talk “the most disgusting image of groupthink that I’ve seen in some time.”

She added, “What is actually quite concerning about your strategy is that you fail to recognise the power of the Labor Party and the Labor movement.”

Unity speakers defended the prospect of the NUS participating in the negotiation of an Accord between university management, staff and students. “It hasn’t started yet… You’re just completely dismissing the concept out of hand… It’s happening anyway, we may as well be there,” one speaker said.

Predictably, many barbs — albeit of unimpressive quality — were traded between SAlt and Labor in the audience as the talk progressed.

“If we made education free, I bet you’d hate it!’ said one Unity genius to Deaglan Godwin. 

“Why haven’t you then?” a swarm of SAlties replied. 

Meanwhile, Pappou was overheard accusing SAlt of being out of touch: “We actually speak to students in a way that means something to them… Get a fucking grip, read a fucking book.”

The session eventually descended into incessant chants of ‘one solution: revolution’ from the comrades over at Labor Right — this was my cue to make an exit.