The 24-hour NTEU/CPSU strike on Tuesday 14 May was the third in a campaign against Sydney University’s draconian plan to kick staff unions off campus, devastate their conditions and wages, and prepare the ground for future cuts. It was timed to coincide with the national day of action against Gillard’s $2.8 billion uni cuts
Staff and supporters have put up a courageous fight in what is really the front line for the battle for public education in Australia. Despite this, the picket lines have been dwindling in numbers, although not determination. This is due to management deliberately stalling negotiations, hoping the union membership will hurt financially, and have its morale broken by police repression.
The problem is, however, that the union leadership have not adequately prepared their membership for the inevitable ups and downs of drawn-out campaign. They have not effectively appealed to other universities and the broader labour movement for human resources and financial assistance.
Their state and national leaderships have been content to sit back and let local members and supporters tough it out, and have imposed a counter-productive ‘picket-line protocol’ that allows people to cross the line after politely listening to picketers. Management and police haveusedthis ‘protocol’against the strikers.
All this has led to increased isolation of the dispute. Combined with the massive job cuts last year, demoralisation threatens to set in.
Lower numbers on the picket have allowed the police and Riot Squad to brutally intervene, to the advantage of the University management. Early on 14 May the police attacked the main City Road picket. Using scrums from two directions, armed police crushed and violently threw people to the ground. Several witnesses reported no verbal requests or warnings from the police.
In the chaos people were pushed over one another, with few in the front rows remainingstanding. During this process I was thrown to the ground – quite far from the larger crowd – and my leg was broken. Another picketer was choked until he was blue. Another sustained internal injuries. Through sheer determination the picketers won this particular battle and the entrance remained blocked. On other pickets the police repression was also extremely violent.
Students and staff must demand the Spence management stop using police to attack staff and students. The industrial dispute is a civil dispute between staff and management, and all attempts to repress workers’ rights to take industrial action need to be fought. The calling of a rally to demand “cops off campus” is a step in the right direction.
However, the decisive factor in ending both the police brutality and the industrial dispute in favour of staff will be building material support for decent wages, conditions and collective rights for staff to provide quality education.
Only a year ago thousands of students and staff were involved in a campaign against huge job cuts. As time passes only serious political explanation, an outward approach and a genuine strategy to win will reinvigorate opposition to the cuts and draw more people into the struggle.
To this end the unions must lead a more concerted appeal to students and the wider labour movement for the necessary human resources, political and moral support, and finances that would take the strain off the most affected membership. This work would give the strikers a shot of confidence that the vast majority of university workers and students are behind them. Workplace delegations and meetings around the country would reveal this.
What happens at Sydney will affect disputes and negotiations at other universities and workplaces throughout NSW and Australia, and our ability to defend public education in the crisis years to come. This is the frontline, and we must escalate the dispute to win.
By W. van Leeuwen