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Holocene 2021  •  22 May 2021

Never Cross a Picket Line: How to Support Staff in a Strike

By UTS Education Action Group

What’s happening at the moment?

University management are, under the ever-thinning veil of the COVID-19 pandemic, wearing away at the quality of education, student services and staff working conditions at UTS. Nearly 400 staff members have been lost to ‘voluntary separation’, and countless casual staff have lost work. This has meant that workloads for remaining staff have drastically increased, their job security jeopardised, and their work conditions worsened. Courses have been cut — worryingly, some examining race, sex and colonisation — and many student services and housing have been sold off or removed altogether. Class sizes have increased, tutorial and lecture times have decreased, and online learning is being maintained past its need in the context of COVID-19, now in the name of ‘blended learning’, i.e. cost cutting. 

The university has told us in their Fit for 2027 financial plan that these measures are a last resort, however this is not true. The university is in an ideal position to borrow through this global financial crisis, and thus retain staff, the quality of education, and services in the short and long term. Instead they have chosen profit, sacrificing staff and student learning conditions at the altar of their bottom line. 

How has tertiary education worsened over time?

In the 70s, we had free higher education. But over time, higher education transitioned from a public good to a privilege. Government funding for universities has decreased from 90% in the 1980s to now just 48%. To make up the difference, universities charge exorbitant fees (particularly to international students, but increasingly to domestic students), cut staff, merge faculties, and engage with corporate partnerships, to name just a few responses. Arts faculties have particularly suffered cuts and restructures, although cuts have occurred across subjects. Student to staff ratios have ballooned, from 13:1 in 1990 to 20:1 in 20001. Staff employment has also changed, with casuals now overtaking full-time staff, which is a shift from the past. Previously, academics were hired on a casual basis. Cuts have also occurred to student services and student unions. Today we are being sold shabby degrees.

How can we fight back?

These cuts are extreme but we do have the power to fight back. While university management owns UTS, they don’t run it. UTS runs because of the hundreds of workers — tutors, lecturers, admin staff — that teach and keep the uni functioning, as well as the students that go to class. But if staff and students strike by refusing to attend, then the university management is powerless. Protests are also highly important; they show that there is resistance and make it politically challenging for the bosses to push through their attacks. They do care about their reputation and so protesting can threaten to ruin it. With students and staff fighting together, management cannot compete. 

Do strikes work? 

Workers striking is the reason we have five-day weeks, paid sick-leave, maternity leave, superannuation, safety regulations in workplaces, child labour regulations. It is the reason social movements such as Civil Rights, Women’s suffrage and anti-war movements have had as much power as they did (and still do). Rights are not given, they are forced into implementation through workers using their power. 

What is an EBA?

EBA stands for Enterprise Bargaining Agreement. It is a type of collective bargaining, where an agreement is made between employers and employees about wages and conditions at an enterprise level within individual organisations, rather than across a whole sector. 

Why are EBAs important?

Australia has incredibly strict industrial action laws that prevent workers from taking industrial action outside of a distinct period, and they may only take industrial action for issues directly related to their wages. Therefore, the EBA period this year is the only time that university staff can fight for better wages and working conditions. 

What is industrial action?

Industrial action is a type of protest taken by workers that directly impacts the employer’s production. At universities, industrial action is supported by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), who represent academic, general, and professional teaching staff at all tertiary institutions. For staff to take industrial action, the NTEU enters a negotiating period for the EBA, then staff vote whether or not they want to take industrial action. It is likely to happen later in 2021. 

Why do we strike?

Striking is the main form of industrial action taken by university staff, and it is very important that strikes are supported by students. By striking, workers are stopping or delaying the means of production in order to show their power in the workplace, and convince management to concede to their demands. If we do not strike, management will continue to squeeze students and workers tighter to ensure they make profits.

What are staff striking for?

Across the public sector (especially in higher education), the government is implementing a range of austerity measures that involve cutting costs at universities. Management does this by cutting staff, employing people more precariously, stealing the wages of the precariously employed, increasing class sizes, forcing more classes online, and much more. 

Why should students support striking staff?

Staff working conditions are students learning conditions, and it’s clear that things are in a very dire state. Every negative change that management makes to staff also affects students. With larger class sizes, we have less chance to engage and get feedback on our ideas. When tutors are struggling to pay bills because their labour is being stolen from them, they can’t provide the same attention to students. Striking staff need students to join them to hold picket lines and allow the industrial action to go ahead. Without student support, strikes are at risk of falling through. 

Won’t a strike impact my education? 

Yes, a strike will impact your education positively. University education is under serious attack, and the quality of your education is rapidly decreasing from an already sorry state. Staff taking industrial action is an incredibly important part of the fight to change that. Their demands around conditions, workload, and pay will better your education. As students striking, we are fighting for our education, and that is something we must sacrifice classes for in the short term.


What are we striking for?

As students, we are striking for the same future as staff. No staff member should be cut, the university should make casual teaching staff permanent, and pay back staff for all stolen wages. We are also fighting against the austerity measures of the government that have significantly impacted higher education. Higher education should be free, not run-for-profit by corporate managers. 

We are striking to save the quality of our education. In recent history (the past couple of decades), higher education has been cut continuously. Government funding to education has dropped to below 50%, and to make up the rest, universities have relied on charging exorbitant fees to international and now domestic students, cutting staff numbers, and merging faculties. This needs to stop! Education is a human right and should be freely available to anyone who wants to learn. 

Why you should not cross the picket.

The future of higher education is at the picket line. By not attending classes, showing up to picket lines, and supporting our teachers, we are showing who runs the university, and making a substantial difference to the future of education, for students and workers. 

Recent history of strikes.

In 2017, during the last EBA period, UTS staff went on a 24-hour strike for paid sick leave for all casuals, increased marking pay per-student, per teaching period, 17% superannuation for casuals, a limit on 50% casual teaching in any faculty, and more paid hours for meeting and research. While the university refused many of these demands, the strike won a conversion mechanism for casual and fixed-term staff, creating more secure work for university staff. 

Recent history of student education activism.

Last year, a significant range of attacks were launched on higher education. The federal government introduced the Higher Education Amendment Bill, which faced significant student backlash because it reduced overall funding to universities and raised fees for most degrees. At the same time, the university implemented a range of cuts to its staff and to course options. Student activists and staff were faced with significant barriers from police repression, but fought back for the right to protest and organised a wave of actions. 

Longer history of student militancy.

Students have always played a crucial role in political activism and forcing change in society. Students have always organised protests, occupations, and mutual aid to fight for left wing issues and support vulnerable communities, such as the huge fight against the Vietnam war, systemic racism, Australia’s treatment of refugees and the consistent attacks on education in Australia. Students also have a long history of supporting staff strikes; striking alongside them on the picket line. 

What is the role of university?

The university should be free. It should be an institution for learning, where students are supported to learn in the field of their choice, and receive an anti-colonial education, the curriculum of which is decided upon by staff and students; the two parties who are actually involved. It should be for the sake of education, not for profit, and not for the production of economically useful workers. 

University education is a right, but it is also necessary for Australian capitalism at large. It was free in the 70s as the government needed an increase of university educated workers to compete on the world stage. Australian capitalism today still relies on uterierty educated graduates, but now they want us to foot the bill. We should be demanding that because they need it, they should pay! 

How are universities connected to the climate crisis?

Universities have a responsibility to educate people about the climate crisis and equip workers with knowledge needed to work in green jobs. When we talk about the need for a just transition to renewables and green jobs, this means supporting public sector jobs such as teaching, nursing and the public service, many of which need university qualifications. Furthermore, the university should be run according to the interests of students and staff, and keeping millions of dollars in fossil fuel and arms manufacturing reserves is not in our interests. UTS needs to divest now.  

Is free education possible? Why do we need it?

Yes. Higher education was free from 1974 until it was abolished by the Hawke Labor Government in 1989 and replaced by HECS. Education should not continue to be bought and sold as a commodity. If higher education were free, it would make universities more accessible to students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. 

University education should not be a privilege. It has been proven to impact your lifespan and many other facets of health and quality of life. Education is a human right, and should not be reserved for the elite few. University education has always been a factor in perpetuating inequality, and this is steadily worsening. Free education is a necessity. 

How do the struggles at UTS and other universities, such as USYD, relate to each other?

It is not just individual campuses that are being attacked by their own management. Education itself is under attack in Australia from a system that only finds a use for education in producing useful workers. During a strike, it’s important to know that the struggles of staff and students are not isolated.We must be united and support each other in industrial and student action. 

UTS management claims that the university is struggling due to the pandemic and has to fire staff, sell student housing, and cut courses to stay afloat. Is that true? 

No. UTS is an incredibly wealthy institution. Firing staff and attacking courses and student services are not a last resort. The university is cost cutting (branded as a move to ‘blended learning’) in order to increase their bottom line — something they have always wanted to do. As the NTEU demonstrated in their response to the university’s Fit for 2027 Blueprint, the university is in a perfect position to borrow through this crisis and retain staff and courses. What is happening to staff and students is not inevitable, it is a calculated financial move of the corporate university to prioritise profit over education.

What can you do? 

  • Don’t go to class while staff are on strike
  • Stand on the picket line
  • Never cross a picket line 
  • Talk to your friends and classmates about why they should support staff
  • Use a lecture bashing script to talk to your lecture or tutorial about the issues
  • Attend EAG events and meetings
  • Let your tutors and lecturers know that they have your support

This explainer is a collaboration between the USYD and UTS Education Action Groups. 


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