In early October the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) leadership at Sydney University asked its members to accept to an offer from management, and call off a planned 72-hour strike.
Management had offered a deal that the NTEU says retained all the working conditions the University had tried to eliminate in their original December 2012 proposal. Union members and supporters fought this initial offer tooth and nail with seven days of determined strikes throughout 2013.
The 2.9% wage increase component of the deal, however, is widely recognised as woefully inadequate. The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), which represents some of the lowest paid workers on campus, therefore broke with the NTEU and rejected the deal. Significant sections of the NTEU membership also disagreed with the NTEU’s position.
The deal – which at the time of writing had not yet been ratified by all staff – would see a 2.9% per annum wage rise locked in for the unusually long period to March 2017. The CPSU correctly argues won’t keep up with inflation, and that is not higher than previous offers. It is well below the NTEU’s claim of 7% per annum and the 4% increase won at Central Queensland, Curtin and Edith Cowan.
Alongside the successful defence of conditions, the offer made some progress in converting casuals into permanent workers. But most importantly, the University’s plan to kick the union off campus was withdrawn. This attack has actually backfired on management with the strike campaign boosting the NTEU membership by 300 to roughly 2,000. Union members should be proud that their collective strength has beat back attempts to undermine their representation.
The main issue however is that much more could be won if the union had employed a better strategy. Without a clear strategy that members felt confident could win, staff morale had earlier been slipping for months as management deliberately drew out negotiations and used the police to attack striking staff and supporters.
However, it was also apparent that staff and supporters were gathering momentum following an Open Day strike and a well-attended campus rally. The union was well placed to go on the offensive but the NTEU leaders failed to grasp the opportunity.
The lack of willingness to escalate the campaign was sometimes justified by saying that union members were too ‘conservative’ to move onto the front foot. But contradicting this is the fact that members overwhelmingly supported the escalation to a three-day stoppage. Workers, even university staff, will be prepared to adopt bold tactics if they can see this fitting into a strategy capable of winning real gains. The real conservatives in this case were actually the NTEU leadership.
The failure of the union leaders to broaden out the dispute also helps explain the sub-standard offer. Other university branches in Sydney should have been approached to mobilise their human and financial resources to support the strikes. The precedent-setting significance of the dispute should have been used to force state and national union bodies to provide the needed resources.
In the coming weeks, rank and file NTEU members should vote ‘no’ to the current offer and argue instead to finish the job alongside the CPSU. With industrial unity, and by escalating the dispute and broadening out its support base, it is entirely possible to both maintain the conditions and win the wage increases that Sydney University staff deserve.
Such a result would bolster our ability to fight back against the cuts to education that the Abbott government has already signalled, and that university managements across the country will try to deliver in the coming months.
By W van Leeuwen