Is Sydney Uni A Hotbed Of Militancy?


In an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald last Friday the Dean of the University of Sydney Law school described her reasons for retiring from the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).

While the story brings useful attention to the enterprise bargaining process that has been underway at the University of Sydney since September 2012, Professor Joellen Riley overlooks key aspects of the dispute.

Riley claimed that the NTEU has pursued an “old-fashioned kind of industrial militancy” that threatens the core business of the University. She is talking about the five days of strike action NTEU members have taken in their bid to force management to reconsider cuts to sick leave, to improve career paths for casual workers, and to allow unions a presence on campus.

The campaign, she argues, is disconnected from the needs of University staff and students, risks damage to the University’s reputation, and has left her with no option but to resign from the NTEU.

The failure to mention some of the more creative strategies adopted in the bargaining campaign reveals that it is Riley who is out of step with the challenges faced by her colleagues.

The membership of the NTEU includes an active network of casual staff members. This network consists of administrative, teaching and research staff who are often employed on short-term contracts at low pay with high workloads and no security.

These casuals have the most to lose if the NTEU compromises further in negotiations on the next Enterprise Agreement. Yet these members have been the most creative in organising demonstrations that raise awareness of the issues at stake.

For example, in flash yoga demonstrations members gather and spontaneously begin practicing yoga to prepare for management’s demand for increased flexibility and decreased stability.

In an essay mark-in demonstration, casual teachers gathered in the Quadrangle to mark huge piles of student work underneath signs displaying the paltry wage they receive for what is some of the university’s most important work.

At a mock bargaining table next week, casual staff will dress up as management. Giant balloons will be pinned to their suits to represent their exorbitant wages and they will distribute smaller balloons to passing staff, representing how the labour of those responsible for core university duties is undervalued by management.

These actions display a sense of humour and raise awareness of the dire conditions facing staff if management do not reconsider their stance.

It's also clear that these actions are anything but “militant”. They are creative, engaging — and ultimately desperate — attempts to create a better future for higher education.

Riley also brings into question the ethics of the NTEU’s planned strike and picket on 31 August, the university’s Open Day.

Riley is right to be concerned about the effect of a strike on Open Day. As the University’s key recruitment event, thousands of potential students arrive on campus to experience University life and to talk to academic and administrative advisors.

For any strike to go ahead, the potential damage to the university’s reputation must be outweighed by the potential improvement to education and working conditions.

In the case of a strike on Open Day, however, it is actually possible that the university’s reputation could be improved by the presence of striking NTEU members at the University gates.

The university, as this debate shows, is clearly a political environment. With further cuts to education on the cards regardless of the political party in power after the coming election, further attacks on workers’ rights will continue to undermine the quality of education on offer to the next generation of Australians.

Currently the university plans to follow the lead of other institutions by perpetuating the fiction of a romantic de-politicised learning experience. Potential students will be handed a promotional “bag of thoughts” and a yellow balloon.

A visible staff presence campaigning for improved education would prove an important point of difference. An Open Day strike would open students’ eyes to the very real attacks on education that will continue to punctuate the story of their university experience in coming years, no matter where they study.

Staff who strike on Open Day will show themselves to be honest about the highly political nature of higher education. They will prove themselves willing to put their bodies on the line for improvements to working conditions and the student experience.

As the industrial dispute at the University of Sydney moves into a new semester, it is important to recognise that Riley’s resignation stands at odds with the several hundred members who have joined the NTEU since management’s unprecedented attacks on working conditions and the quality of education at the University.

When you see staff on the pickets at Open Day, rest assured they stand together to buck the trend of ongoing attacks to the quality of education in Australia.

The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of the NTEU or the University of Sydney.

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