Discussion Papers

NHEAN will be periodically posting and circulating discussion documents written by our members which articulate their understandings of NHEAN’s position and their proposals for future directions. These are not official NHEAN statements but represent the views of particular members of NHEAN.

Discussion Paper – Organising after the Assembly

NHEAN is developing a statement clarifying the distinctive approach our network of activists is taking to building towards industrial action. Contributions from NHEAN supporters to developing this statement are welcome. We will be voting on a final statement at next Friday’s meeting 11th September.

NHEAN’s unprecedented National Assembly on August 24 of over 460 university workers has caused a major stir and put industrial action in the tertiary education sector on the table in a serious way. The Assembly committed to “mounting a vigorous campaign of coordinated actions with the goal of making democratically planned unprotected industrial action possible so as to defend universities from funding cuts and protect all university jobs”.

96% of people voted in favour of this motion – a sign of rising anger and the willingness to fight. Of course, we should be under no illusions that this vote is indicative of the majority of union members in the sector, let alone the majority of staff as a whole. But the Assembly drew a wide cross-section of workers and included many senior staff members. The sentiment expressed in this vote should be cultivated to build a serious campaign against the attacks from Morrison and the university managements, and to push the bounds of what’s possible.

There are promising signs on many campuses of growing appetite for more radical action. Casuals Networks in particular have been increasingly vocal about the need to withdraw our labour in order to strike serious blows against the massive cuts being pushed through now. Protests, rallies and shorter workplace stoppages on particular campuses should be encouraged. But these also need to be linked to a wider campaign against the government’s assault on higher education and to carry the argument for wider strike action. 

NHEAN intends building on the sentiment expressed at the Assembly. We will be participating in the upcoming student protests against the cuts and encouraging all sections of the NTEU to do likewise.

We are also committed to building a mobilisation (with as much NTEU endorsement as we can manage) in October, around the time of the federal budget. We will be pushing for the widest possible work stoppages at these mobilisations. We will also be organising a series of local forums to build for more serious action. 

We are also going to our local area meetings, and using the dispute processes in enterprise agreements to campaign against the cuts at individual campuses. Building struggles at the campus level and a political campaign against Morrison to demand increased funding are not counter-posed. In fact, they reinforce each other. Demonstrations can win wider community and union support and combat any isolation felt by individual campuses.   

Understanding the NTEU officials

As part of our organising, we need to be clear about the role of the NTEU and the paid NTEU officials. The union is the primary fighting organisation of tertiary education workers. Any fight against the cuts will require the mobilisation of NTEU union members. Paid NTEU officials, as well as those unpaid office-holders they have influenced, have played a corrosive role in pushing the concessionary Jobs Protection Framework, and its local variations. It was foisted onto the membership after secret meetings between the national executive and university managers, without any consultation with the membership. Starting out with this approach undermines members’ resolve to fight the cuts and disarms the union as a whole.

The paid NTEU trade union officials are like other union officials; they are brokers between the bosses and ordinary workers. They do not have to sell their labour to an employer, nor do they have to fear the sack from them. This makes it a lot easier for them to negotiate conditions away.

But the officials also rely on the membership to maintain their negotiating position – that is, they can be pushed by those workers who have decided to stand up for their employment rights. Their opposition to Tehan’s cuts should be encouraged. The officials’ new-found enthusiasm for mounting a nation-wide wage-theft campaign is a response to the militancy of casual and ongoing members across the campuses – especially by the member-led campaign at Melbourne University winning millions in backpay. For activists, a national wage theft campaign presents stronger opportunities to organise on the campus, but also brings new challenges.

The officials are also responding to the member-led militancy of casuals’ networks that triggered the wage-theft disputes by seeking to integrate the networks more tightly into NTEU Branch structures and processes. At RMIT, the casuals’ network has secured access to members email lists by working with organisers and Industrial Officers (and has a casuals rep on the Branch Committee). Many other casuals’ networks work with their own email lists of activists because the officials will not provide a full members’ list. Crucially, however, the RMIT network has also campaigned to maintain rank and file control by having an agreement to run its own meetings, put out its own newsletter and other communications to members with Branch officials playing a fairly ‘hands-off’ role. The University of Sydney casuals’ network also has an independent relationship to the branch, even though it works with it closely (but critically).

Most union members recognise they need the strength of the union to fight the cuts. The reality is that the union officials, who traditionally have a monopoly over communications, usually succeed in imposing their strategy of how members should respond to management attacks. Activists need to grapple with this state of affairs. Simply denouncing the officials as ‘sell-outs’ in members’ meetings is not an alternative strategy. A strategy to win has to go beyond a one-dimensional focus on voting No to any deals that cut jobs, pay or conditions.

Voting No to any variations imposed by university managements is an important start to building the campaign. But that has to be built on, to show in practice what an alternative fighting strategy looks like and give members confidence to fight back on this basis.

The rank and file groupings that have sprung up out of the rank and file revolt in the NTEU are impressive. But they are not large enough by themselves to carry off successful mass actions like strikes. We need to politically win these arguments in the branch committees and among the rank and file of the union if we are to get the militant action we need.   

Pressuring the officials into calling and supporting mass actions is a crucial part of building the campaign. But we cannot always wait for official union backing to take action ourselves, as members.

Pulling officials into the actions, like national days of action that were held in May, are an important part of winning the possibility of union-wide action and winning wider layers of activists to an alternative industrial strategy that relies on union strength, not making concessions.

Far from providing left cover for the officials, these actions were organised in the face of serious resistance from some officials. NHEAN members organised anti-JPF banners and placards to be part of the mobilisation. In Victoria, where the officials did not want to have a mobilisation in May at all, rank and file activists had to take the initiative to push it through. The successful action helped to build the confidence and organisation needed to also defeat the non-union ballot put at Melbourne University.

The Sydney mobilisation that featured a rally in Sydney University as well as a protest outside the Liberal Party headquarters, showed people it was possible to organise protests against the cuts even in the tough circumstances of a pandemic. Those actions contributed to the campaigning, largely by students, already underway, against course cuts in the Faculty of Arts, which did save some courses. And they opened the door for more protests that have since happened at Sydney in August and ones planned in September. 

In this way, more members can be won to opposing the cuts in practice. When the NTEU officials endorse certain mobilisations, it makes it easier for activists to argue for more militant actions. Having NTEU endorsement for certain actions gives legitimacy to those actions, and also gives members a greater sense of security about taking action. Taking action can also give members greater confidence in their own power and ability to go beyond what the officials are willing to endorse. 

Having the arguments with people about the bankruptcy of the concessionary frameworks is crucial, but on its own, this is not enough. ‘Voting No’ on its own cannot win back the thousands of casuals’ jobs already shed early in the pandemic. This has to be backed up by actions that point to an alternative. NHEAN is committed to organising action now. In the course of doing that, we will continue to build the confidence of NTEU members to break out of the shackles of “protected bargaining” that limits our industrial and political power.

NTEU members cannot just wait until the next round of bargaining next year. Individual campuses cannot be left to fight alone. The government and university managements are not playing by the rules. The attacks they are planning will massively restructure the tertiary sector. It is patently obvious that to beat back the immediate attacks, we need to build in the rank and file for the widest possible union campaign.

Responding to NTEU Fightback

Sadly, the NTEU Fightback’s initial hostility to the Assembly has continued with its dismissive attitude to the vote for unprotected industrial action. Instead, they now find themselves arguing the same line as the NTEU officials, that the only way forward, apart from organising against cuts within the usual parameters of university change processes, is to wait until next year’s round of bargaining to take strike action. This is not the case.

In a recent email, NTEU Fightback indicated that the focus on unofficial industrial action by NHEAN and CUPUW (the Casualised, Unemployed and Precarious University Workers network) is misdirected. The email argues that instead of speaking or passing motions about unprotected or unofficial strikes, the real focus for union militants should instead be to make “next year’s bargaining round our key medium-term priority”. This flawed assessment risks hosing down the sentiment expressed at the Assembly, rather than pushing it forward.

Far from distracting from future EBA bargaining rounds, taking action now – whether in the form of industrial action, protests, or national days of action – is the best way of setting us up for a strong round of official strikes next year.

It is a conservative and incorrect assessment that the level of organisation at university campuses makes unofficial strikes either impossible or inadvisable in the current climate. Last year we saw NTEU staff take industrial action during the climate strikes. The appetite for ongoing staff to take further action has yet to be tested, but they would only gain confidence to do so by the campaign of mobilisation by the Melbourne University Casuals Network and NTEU which is winning millions of dollars in back pay. These have all occurred outside of official bargaining periods. Any creative ways of mobilising in the largest numbers possible should be explored and encouraged in the short term.

NHEAN’s approach of relating to and involving new layers of activists in casuals’ networks has now resulted in the RMIT NTEU branch committee establishing an activists’ campaign group that can actively involve more union members, and build wider support in the rank and file, for action against the attacks.

Marcus Banks

Miro Sandev

Nic Avery

Louise Walker

Ruby Wawn

Matilda Fay

Marijke Hoving

Paddy Gibson

Kynan Tan

Toby Fitch

Astrid Lorange

Andrew Brooks