Nation-wide university strike a huge success
Academic and non-academic staff and students nationwide stopped work on October 16 to protest against the Howard Government's attempts to crush student and staff unionism and impose individual contracts on staff. Thousands of protestors took to the streets of Australia's major cities in an act of unprecedented solidarity, while university work ground to a halt. Pickets were mounted at the entrances of many universities, and at libraries and other centres of university activity. The highly successful university industrial action followed several weeks of intense activity over the government's attempted enforcement of its new university industrial policies. The Government is attempting to make $404 million in federal university funding conditional on universities conforming to its anti-student, anti-worker agenda. The misnamed Bill, Backing Australia's Future, was bulldozed through the House of Representatives, but is still to be tested in the Senate where it is expected to encounter some opposition. It seeks to abolish collective agreements (Enterprise Bargaining Agreements, or EBAs) negotiated by unions in universities and replace them with non-union individual work contracts (Australian Workplace Agreements, or AWAs). The seven unions involved have referred the matter to the International Labour Organisation, arguing that the government's policies breach the ILO Convention on freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively. Even the conservative Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee has described the government's new uni employment policies as "unworkable". It is not a matter of giving employees "freedom of choice" over their method of employment, as the government describes it. As the Sydney University branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) noted, "University staff already have the option of negotiating an individual common law agreement with their employer. The government is not satisfied, however, because under the current arrangements, any individual contract offered by a university must at least match, if not surpass, the working conditions set out in collective bargaining agreements. "In other words, for any individually-contracted staff member, there remains a strong collective agreement to fall back on. An Australian Workplace Agreement is a form of contract that explicitly cuts off access to such a safety net. The minimum standard becomes whatever employers can get away with offering to the most vulnerable of their employees." ANU calls government's bluff Just prior to the nation-wide strike the Australian National University (ANU) staff union forced administration to sign off on its enterprise agreement. As a result they did not participate in the strike. Minister for Education Brendan Nelson warned that if the legislation passed the Senate the ANU would have to re-open negotiations with staff over the EBA. Perth In Perth the President of the WA Division of the National Tertiary Education Union told the thousand students and staff at a rally that their action had good support in the media, from the ACTU, the Teachers' Union and support from Ireland, the USA and Canada. To the surprise of many the Vice Chancellor of Curtin University spoke. He opposed the workplace relations proposals. The President of the National Union of Students condemned funding cuts, pointing out that soon it would only be rich people who could go to university. The Assistant Secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union urged students and staff to take the issues widely to the community for they needed to understand and be concerned for the education of their children. Sydney University postpones EBA The Government's Bill was presented to Parliament the day before the University of Sydney was to sign off on a long-due wage increase. The Vice Chancellor, Gavin Brown, refused to sign off on the agreement, saying that the legislation, if passed, would be implemented retrospectively. Staff responded with a series of stop-work meetings and a university-wide strike on October 7. That night the University's Senate had a meeting. The Vice Chancellor was questioned by staff Senate members regarding the appropriateness of refusing to sign off on an industrial agreement. He claimed he did not want to jeopardise the university's access to its promised portion of the $404 million pool of funding. Both staff and students around Australia are concerned that the government's policies will have major adverse implications for tertiary education in general — its quality, independence and student access. Last Thursday staff and students sent a clear message to the Howard Government that they will not tolerate the undermining of university staff and student rights. This is only the beginning of the struggle to defend public university education. The next step is to bring in other trade unions and community at large.