In late June, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) voted to set up a $1 million fund to be used to support the Greens in the upcoming federal election. The NTEU are putting forward the idea that this alone is the best way to beat back the government’s $2.8 billion of cuts to the university sector.
At a specially convened meeting of the NTEU’s national council, 60% of delegates voted to create the election fund. The money will nominally be used to support individual candidates with the union’s own material and human resources. The explicit aim is keeping the Greens in the balance of power.
Given that both of the major parties are committed to implementing education cuts in some form, relying on the balance of power in parliament is a poor strategy.
Far from advocating a real alternative to cuts and the marketisation of education, the NTEU is really striving to defend the position of the ALP – the same party that is responsible for implementing the cuts! NTEU National President Jeannie Rea said “We don’t want to see the Labor Government voted out and a Coalition Government voted in but the ALP needs to hear loud and clear that the $4 billion cuts to higher education since 2011 are plain dumb.”
On one level the NTEU’s strategy attempts to discipline Labor, papering over the fact that ALP have been implementing the same neo-liberal polices as the Liberals for years. In fact, it was the ALP that began the attacks on higher education in the 1980s. The truth is that the cuts are driven by big business pressure to protect profits and open up new markets for exploitation. All of the parties that support the market system should therefore share the blame.
The Greens, for their part, have mouthed opposition to the cuts but have in reality propped up the ALP government for most of the last term. They have voted for all of their budgets including those that make cuts to education. They support the same profit driven market system as the major parties.
Because the Greens do not have an economic or political alternative to the major parties their rhetoric is often in stark contrast to their actions. The idea that simply voting for them will solve the problems in the university sector is at best deeply mistaken or at worst utterly dishonest.
NTEU members need to fight for a genuine political alternative. Only a system that seeks to remove the profit motive from education can ensure that the sector is properly funded and accessible to all. Unions need to build a party that that fights for this not just in the parliament but on the streets and in the workplaces.
A political alternative to the market system needs to be linked to an industrial strategy that mobilises university staff – utilising their own power as workers that are integral to the education process – to force through the types of progressive changes we need. A campaign of strike action and mass protests that also involves students is the best way to win.
The NTEU leaders have justified their lack of an industrial strategy by saying that the Fair Work legislation makes it illegal to strike except during bargaining periods. While this shows the need to challenge these laws – including by defying them – given that there are many workplace agreement negotiations currently taking place it would actually be possible to legally organise co-ordinated stop work actions in a number of universities.
Far from sowing illusions in the Greens, real change can be achieved if university staff rely on their own industrial strength and link that with politics that challenge the market system itself. A 24-hour nation-wide staff and student strike in the sector should be the next step in the campaign.
Defeating these cuts and winning free and accessible education for all is possible if a fighting strategy is adopted.
By W. van Leeuwen