ga('send', 'pageview');
John Passant

Site menu:

May 2012



RSS Oz House



Subscribe to us

Get new blog posts delivered to your inbox.


Site search


My interview Razor Sharp 18 February
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. (0)

My interview Razor Sharp 11 February 2014
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp this morning. The Royal Commission, car industry and age of entitlement get a lot of the coverage. (0)

Razor Sharp 4 February 2014
Me on 4 February 2014 on Razor Sharp with Sharon Firebrace. (0)

Time for a House Un-Australian Activities Committee?
Tony Abbott thinks the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is Un-Australian. I am looking forward to his government setting up the House Un-Australian Activities Committee. (1)

Make Gina Rinehart work for her dole

Sick kids and paying upfront


Save Medicare

Demonstrate in defence of Medicare at Sydney Town Hall 1 pm Saturday 4 January (0)

Me on Razor Sharp this morning
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace this morning for Razor Sharp. It happens every Tuesday. (0)

I am not surprised
I think we are being unfair to this Abbott ‘no surprises’ Government. I am not surprised. (0)

Send Barnaby to Indonesia
It is a pity that Barnaby Joyce, a man of tact, diplomacy, nuance and subtlety, isn’t going to Indonesia to fix things up. I know I am disappointed that Barnaby is missing out on this great opportunity, and I am sure the Indonesians feel the same way. [Sarcasm alert.] (0)



Fighting job cuts at Sydney University – a rank and file perspective

The “No job cuts” campaign at the University of Sydney has seen the biggest mobilisation of staff in years writes Alma Torlakovic, the chair of the campaign committee and one of the general staff of the university, in Socialist Alternative. During the last six months, workers have begun a serious campaign to halt the axing of 360 jobs. The momentum of the campaign surprised all of us. In rally after rally, thousands of angry staff and students have come out to protest, determined not to let this attack get through.

The first National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members meeting called after the cuts were announced (at the end of last year) had a record 580 union members at it! On the first day of O-week, as the festivities kicked off, staff assembled in the rain in front of Fisher Library to hear speeches and marched defiantly through the centre of the O-week activities.

The following week, a mass rally of over 700 was held under the vice chancellor’s window, loud chants and cheers echoing through the Quad. The next rally, attended by about 1500 staff and students, was the biggest at Sydney University in years. On the day the final notices were sent out, hundreds again turned out and marched defiantly through campus and onto the street. Students occupied spaces in the Quadrangle, and continued to show support for the staff facing an attack on their livelihoods. At the last demonstration, the police, called onto campus by the VC, acted like thugs against a small number of students who tried to get into one of the buildings.

But despite large mobilisations, and mass meetings of hundreds of angry staff members, the vice chancellor is continuing with the program of cuts. As of Monday 7 May, a total of 110 academics have either been given redundancies or teaching-focused contracts. In addition, a number of others have been forced onto early retirement contracts.

Throughout the campaign, there have been debates within the union about the strategy that can win. Officials of the union have argued again and again that Fair Work Australia (FWA) will help us. They argued that the university has contravened the enterprise bargaining agreement by applying unfair retrospective criteria to sack academic staff. By this logic, the bosses’ court should see that we are morally correct and therefore stop the process. Instead, Fair Work ruled that the consultation process suggested by the VC was inadequate and therefore should be extended. This bought the union some time, but proved in vain. As the extended consultation period expired, it was clear the VC intended to go ahead with the cuts.

As chair of the campaign committee and one of the general staff of the university, I have argued that Fair Work would be a dead end. This is not only because it ignores the 200-odd general staff also facing the axe, but that the history of FWA has shown us whose side they are on. Recently, FWA ruled that Qantas workers had to end their industrial dispute and ordered the Australian Nursing Federation in Victoria to return to work. Indeed, the fact that FWA ruled to merely extend the Sydney University consultation process demonstrated they thought the cuts were legitimate and fair enough, and that only the process was lacking.

Our only hope lies with mobilising rank and file members and, ultimately, taking industrial action. The VC will only listen if the university’s functioning is disrupted and the bottom line is challenged. Such mobilisations did occur, despite much feet-dragging and arguments from some that smaller actions were just as worthwhile and that members would tire from having yet another rally. At meeting after meeting, union members have voted to continue the mass rallies. However when talk of industrial action was raised, officials of the union have sought to shut down any serious debate.

It is worth mentioning some of the history of the NTEU. It is now quite a few years since the NTEU at Sydney University has taken industrial action. During the last enterprise bargaining period, a strike was called and overwhelmingly voted on by members. But the day before the strike the union leadership called it off, branding a victory the fact that the VC had agreed to a pay increase and other demands. The momentum that could have been used to get an even better outcome and raise the confidence and consciousness of staff was not seized upon.

Furthermore, the anti-union laws of Gillard’s Fair Work Act stipulate that workers cannot take lawful industrial action outside a bargaining period. But while the NTEU is not the kind of militant union likely to be in the forefront of breaking these laws, we have missed the opportunity to even talk seriously about the importance of legal industrial action. We need to start preparing now for industrial action when the next round of enterprise bargaining begins next month, and linking the need to do so to the attacks we’ve already faced from management.

Instead the NTEU leadership on campus seems to want to wind down the No Cuts campaign. The response of the officials has been to celebrate the announcement that “only” 23 staff will get forced redundancy notices, and ignore the other dozens who’d been forced onto teaching focused contracts, or had already succumbed to the pressure to take “voluntary” redundancy or early retirement. While the campaign so far has put management on the defensive, now is the time to keep up the pressure, and not paint the gains we have made as a final victory.

In discussions about taking legal industrial action around the new agreement Michael Thomson, the president of the union branch, reassured us that there’s a difference between a dozen staff getting redundancies and a hundred – implying that it wouldn’t be worthwhile continuing the campaign if a smaller number of staff were targeted. When challenged about the looming 200-odd job cuts facing general staff, the response of the officials and some members of the branch committee has been that the approach to getting rid of general staff will be “different”. By this they mean that general staff will be let go “locally”, therefore the union need not worry about defending them. So much for the slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all”.

Overall, rank and file activists have been angered by the attacks of the Sydney University management, and in mobilising in their hundreds throughout the semester have shown a willingness to fight. A committed core of activists has consistently put in hours of work to build the rallies, meetings and actions. Staff from various departments painted their own banners, wrote articles and passed motions in local meetings. They have participated in debates and campaign meetings.

Unfortunately, there have been times where NTEU leaders at Sydney Uni have argued that members should not be trying to influence the direction of the union’s campaign. But rank and file activity is the bread and butter of a good union. That means we need more debate, not less, to make decisions to protest or strike and involve more members. These ideas of rank and file activism and militancy as the lifeblood of unionism have to be nurtured and rebuilt.

At the end of 2011, workers at the Baiada chicken factory gave Australian workers a lesson in old-school union struggle. They bravely held a 24-hour picket line for 13 days, letting nothing in and nothing out. They managed to win a pay rise, safer working conditions, and the right of union representation amongst other demands. The workers at Baiada, many of them casualised, migrant women in extremely precarious work conditions, showed unionists across the country the way to win.

The experience we’ve had at Sydney University shows how quickly the mood among workers can shift. From a place that’s often been respectable and quiet, we’ve seen a serious and defiant campaign emerge within a few short weeks. Union membership grew as the campaign spread and new layers of members were involved in activity. In a period where workers across the world are facing austerity and attacks on their living standards, strong unions will need to be rebuilt everywhere to face the coming challenges. The campaign at Sydney University has been a step in the right direction.

Alma is Chair of the NTEU Campaign Committee at Sydney University.



Pingback from En Passant » Fighting job cuts at Sydney University – a rank and file perspective |#ausunions | The Left Hack
Time May 18, 2012 at 8:52 am

[…] En Passant » Fighting job cuts at Sydney University – a rank and file perspective |#ausunions Posted on May 18, 2012 by Darin Sullivan via […]

Write a comment