Today I was able to attend and participate in the National Tertiary Education Union’s strike action at the University of Queensland, where I am currently a student. It is the first of what will hopefully be many such actions taken both at UQ’s St Lucia campus and across other universities in Queensland and other states, with a clear message and clear demands – secure work, a real pay rise, and more control.
For about a month or so I have been loosely following the NTEU’s campaigns, both in the lead up to the enterprise bargaining agreements for workers and the election of members to positions within the Union itself. On Monday, one of my tutors mentioned that industrial action will be taking place this week to kick off what has been called “Striketember”.
According to this tutor, who to my knowledge is a casual employee, UQ has been in talks with the NTEU for some time with the claim that they are “listening”, yet no one at these meetings has any power to negotiate or make decisions. This raises the question of how an EBA agreement can even be reached, and shows a rather blatant lack of respect for the Union and for staff from UQ management. Many said industrial action is the only viable method to make any real progress, and many turned out to take part.
I arrived at the strike around 8:30am, which had started around 7:00am. It was supposed to go until 10:00am, but plans changed a bit before then. I did hear from one person that the members had overwhelmingly voted to take part in a full 24-hour strike, but that the leadership stepped in and it was limited to a mere three and a half hours. I met up with my tutor and spoke to a few other participants, with signs, flags and shirts around the entrance of the campus – with many passers-by in cars honking their support.
After a few chants, a couple of speeches were given that highlighted some interesting information. For starters, last year UQ had reported profits well over $300M, but that even during a pandemic, little of this money was reinvested back in the staff and students. Student fees and the work of staff – of which approximately 70% is in some form of casual work – is what makes the university run, a fact that UQ management themselves acknowledge. One speaker later on called out the “empty platitudes” and wanted to see some genuine, tangible results.
Things looked to be winding down by around 9:30am, which sparked some calls for a march on the Chancellery building. The crowd, which I am pretty sure had grown as it went, made its way through the campus and stood outside the building. Disappointingly, no one came out to say hello – I wonder why?
Some more speeches were given and chants yelled (I personally find the chanting a bit much, not my thing). A number of important points were made, some examples of mismanagement and exploitation were given, and there was at least one person in attendance who signed up to join the Union on the spot.
First, the number of staff (~70%) that are on a casual basis is well too high. This means that there are many who are struggling to live off the money they get for their work in the university, either having to pick up a second job, apply for Centrelink to complement their wages, or leave academia entirely. It also means that the quality of work declines – something many passionate staff are not happy with, and which is also detrimental to student learning outcomes. There were a number of students, including myself, who attended in solidarity because it’s a struggle that unites us all.
Second, new executive and management positions have been created, with one specific case being the library. One library staff member involved with the NTEU said it was shameful that, while the dedicated library staff struggle to provide adequate services to all those who utilise them, hundreds of thousands of dollars are thrown at four executive positions overseeing it. One of those positions was created and filled within two months, and they are not even sure what exactly they are doing.
Third, many acknowledged the fact that the land we were on always was and always will be Aboriginal land, which is important to remember. One Aboriginal man who spoke said that while pushing forward for the workers of UQ, we also have to remember to push forward the fight for Indigenous workers. No exact figures were given, but UQ has a minimum threshold for the number of Indigenous staff set in the EBAs and based on the last agreement, they failed. More on this issue below.
Fourth, I can’t recall the sum involved, but UQ has invested in property in the Brisbane CBD, an expensive move derided by much of the staff. UQ students living in accommodation nearby were unimpressed as well, with claims that kitchen and washing facilities in the newer buildings were not adequate.
Fifth, the corporatisation of the universities is heavily opposed. These are public institutions filled with passionate and intelligent minds, and the system as it stands does not reflect that. High profits and loaded salaries for the bosses is not what a university should be focussing on, yet that is the reality while staff struggle to support their families and have to take on extra jobs just to stay afloat. The money is there – and more government investment can and should be provided to tertiary education of all sorts – they just need to prioritise the public they are meant to serve.
Lastly – this is just the beginning, not the end. My involvement and attendance at future events will, sadly, depend on work and assessment schedules, but as mentioned above, the NTEU has much more planned across multiple universities around the country. I even heard one person say “yes, Darwin are our comrades, they just make shit coffee”. One of the final chants outside the Chancellery was “We will be back!” and you better believe they will be.
It was a great experience, and it looks like there is some very positive momentum building within the Union movement as a whole. The NTEU is striking nationally, and I know the rail workers and nurses and midwives have been taking lots of action in New South Wales as well. The Perrottet Liberal government is facing a lot of opposition – one can only hope they buckle under pressure or finally get removed from power in the next election down there.
But, it would be remiss of me to focus on the positives alone – because I also picked up on a number of issues within the NTEU itself.
The NTEU Concerns
I knew it to be the case, but it is insightful to learn just how widespread dissidence within the Union movement actually is. Some members and supporters present were quite critical of the Union management (such as in the case of limiting the strike time this morning) and in other areas. Fahad Ali, a casual academic, is running for National President of the NTEU under the banner of A New NTEU following issues with current leadership in NSW. I’ve followed his campaign (and got the chance to meet him today), and he appears to have attracted quite a groundswell of support. Whether it is enough to be elected we will have to see, but he and others seemed optimistic and even a little surprised.
Another major issue is the treatment of Indigenous voices within the Union. Last year, Chelsea Watego left both UQ and (I think, but could be incorrect on second-hand information) the NTEU after withdrawing a race and sex discrimination complaint and dropping a legal battle. The university went after her, and the NTEU, who at first committed themselves to representing her, abandoned it and told Watego she was on her own. This is despite having quite a large industrial defence budget, and more money spent on conferences than industrial defence last year – something Watego rightly calls out:
I’m not in the loop on every case of racism within the Union movement, but that it exists at all is disgusting and that Indigenous academics can be disrespected and abandoned in this fashion shows just how much work needs to be done even in progressive spaces. The NTEU at the time denied the allegations of racism and declined to comment further on the matter – but many members were and are angry at how it was handled.
It was also amusing to see the opposition towards the Labor Party as well. Given the ACTU and other Union bodies are embedded heavily with Labor, many in the general public seem to believe that Union members are Labor members or supporters. This is hardly the case, as at least one speaker this morning called out the Labor party, and a few I spoke with afterwards weren’t much kinder. One quite emphatically explained that the Accords screwed everyone over, another said fighting the bosses (as opposed to negotiating with them) was the only real path, and a third decried the micromanaging tendencies of Labor and the NTEU.
On the ground, the members – the workers – very well understand the power they have collectively, and it doesn’t lay with the bosses, whether capital, political or Union. While the situation seems shit at the moment, most of the people there were quite optimistic so long as momentum was maintained and membership was expanded. Quite a few staff seem indifferent or oblivious to the struggles of the Union and that the benefits they do currently enjoy were fought for through similar actions in the past. Disheartening, but one hopes they will see reason and join the struggle.
It will be interesting to see how the NTEU progresses in the future, in terms of membership, their position to fight against the universities, and internally. If today really was just the start, I eagerly await the coming months.