The University of Sydney faced turmoil today after staff held a strike for the first time in a decade in response to changes in the university’s staff contracts.
Strikers gathered at seven of the university’s entrances to try and stop pedestrians and vehicles from entering the university’s grounds. In some cases, protestors linked arms to form a physical barricade to prevent people from entering the campus.
Despite this, hundreds of students and vehicles crossed the picket lines throughout the day to attend class or use university facilities such as the library. Among them were many first year students who were either unfamiliar with the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement issue at the centre of the strike, or were unwilling to miss their first week of classes.
“I understand that [staff] have their own reasons to strike, but I’ve paid a lot to come to uni. I’m paying a grand a semester, I should at least get to go to class,” Commerce/Arts student, Jessica Can, said.
The strike was organised by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) in response to changes in the university’s Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, which proposes drastic cuts to staff’s wage and work conditions.
Changes the NTEU objects to include a reduction in sick leave entitlements, cuts to the inflation-driven yearly pay rise rate of 7% (down to 2%), the removal of an anti-discrimination clause and the removal of the teaching union’s right to challenge management decisions and take on disputes on behalf of staff.
The NTEU said staff had been forced to strike because the EBA in its current state is unacceptable, and negotiations between the union and university management have deteriorated since concerns were first raised in April last year.
“The management have been consistently trying to delay things, consistently refusing to engage in proper discussions with us. They are treating staff in an insulting and contemptuous way,” said Michael Thomson, president of NTEU’s University of Sydney branch.
But the Vice Chancellor of Sydney University, Dr Michael Spence, believes that the NTEU’s strike is not widely supported and that it won’t succeed in, “shutting the uni down for the day”.
Spence said only 21% of university staff are members of the NTEU and that the changes made to the EBA were in response to requests for greater work flexibility.
Spence also argued that the federal government’s cuts to tertiary education meant that the university doesn’t have enough money to pay the 7% pay rise.
These claims didn’t stop many students from being involved in the strike today, after the university’s Student Representative Council (SRC) officially endorsed the strike.
“The university is arguing that the strike will hurt students because classes will be cancelled. But I think most students want staff that actually have a decent amount of research experience, actually have time for teaching without getting burdened by admin load or being overly casualised,” the President of the SRC, David Pink, said.
Pink estimated that over 1,000 students were involved in striking action, but said there were difficulties in engaging everyone due to the apathetic nature of the broader student community.
SRC education officer, Tenya Alattas, also said that while students seemed “generally supportive”, it was difficult to gauge whether the majority of the university’s 55 000 students supported the strike or not.
The protest has attracted support from students from other universities including several members from the UTS Students’ Association (SA).
“It’s really important to support other campus activism because what affects one university generally affects others,” UTS SA president, Lyndal Butler said.
“It’s in [students] best interest to support staff in these actions because it is our education that suffers when staff suffer.”
Although the SA didn’t officially endorse the strike, it runs a number of campaigns that tackle similar problems at UTS.
The NTEU is threatening to hold another 48 hour strike on March 19–20 if their demands are not met.
By Lachlan Bennett