The Guardian October 22, 2003


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.

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