Organizing Rank-and-File Academics in Australia’s Universities

Australian universities have been badly hit by COVID-19, with already deregulated workforces suffering job losses and pay cuts. On the back of recent setbacks, rank-and-file organizing is trying to reinvigorate the Tertiary Education Union as a site of struggle.

Protesters against education funding cuts march through the city streets on May 21, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia. Robert Cianflone / Getty

Interview by
Anastasia Kanjere

Australia’s university system is in deep crisis. For decades, job security, intellectual freedoms, and teaching quality have been eroded, largely due to the neoliberal policy framework imposed by successive Australian Labor Party (ALP) and Liberal-National Coalition governments. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit this already faltering sector, the impact was severe. The sector had adapted to dwindling government funding by raising revenue through international student fees. When this income was abruptly curtailed, budgetary crises hit hard.

In response, senior National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) leadership negotiated the controversial Jobs Protection Framework (JPF) with a selection of vice chancellors, represented by the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association. The JPF proposed to trade cuts to pay and conditions in return for the nominal commitment from management to retain jobs. With no membership consultation involved in the process of drawing up the agreement, the framework has been met with widespread resistance from the rank and file. Indeed, at the few universities where it has been instituted, multiple restructures and widespread job losses are already underway. While the majority of institutions have rejected the JPF, university executives at most campuses are pursuing a similar agenda, justifying cuts with a — usually unenforceable — commitment to protecting jobs.

The advocates of the JPF championed it on the basis that there is no alternative to making concessions. Among other factors, they cited low union density in the tertiary sector. While this is a real problem, activist members of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) disagree that cuts are the solution. For those who are working to rebuild union militancy on the ground, there is an alternative, both for the union and for the sector. It involves rebuilding a united, fighting union that can not only resist attacks, but go further to reimagine our universities, relegating market-based governance and casualization to the archives. To discuss this ambitious, worker-oriented deep organizing model, Anastasia Kanjere met with two leading NTEU rank-and-file activists, Annette Herrera of University of Melbourne and Helen Masterman-Smith of Charles Sturt University.


AK

The university sector has been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 crisis, in part due to the federal government’s determination that universities should not receive the JobKeeper allowance or other financial assistance. What does it mean to be organizing workers in the face of this hostility from the state?

HMS

The Coalition is using this crisis to accelerate its long-term plans to radically recast the sector. They want to return to an elite model of university, in which higher education is not available to the masses. They would rather the universities return to being accessible only to the children of the elite or to those working- and middle-class kids who excel and are given subsidies.

What’s worse is that university managements agree in principle with shrinking the university. The Australian Higher Education Industry Association [representing vice chancellors] has made no secret of their vision for a radically different higher education sector. Our own vice chancellor has aligned himself with this — he had quite a detailed plan to, in his words, “shrink the university.” So, at Charles Sturt University, we are a microcosm of the bigger agenda to continue privatizing, corporatizing, commodifying, and shrinking the public university system.

These huge challenges call for a style of organizing that Jane McAlevey refers to as “whole worker organizing.” It’s about engaging people beyond their roles as employees, tapping into their roles as community members — members of community groups, sporting associations, political parties, congregations, whatever the case may be. It’s critical to build on the relationships employees have beyond the workplace because, ultimately, this is a political attack. We need both a political and an industrial response.

AK

Part of the broader community hostility to higher education workers is fed by this idea that university workers in Australia are very privileged. What’s the reality of work in this site, and what are the implications for organizing?

HMS

The average university worker is female, is in insecure employment, and is either an academic or a general or professional staff member, depending on the university. Certainly there are some higher-paid workers. But over the last ten years or so, wages and conditions have been eroded while casualization has spread throughout the sector. These casual workers are very vulnerable — and when you take into account wage theft, some are lower paid than retail workers. This vulnerability and insecurity presents us with massive organizing challenges. Both in the NTEU and across the trade union movement for many years, we haven’t developed good strategies to organize workers in such fearful environments.

AH

Helen’s description of the typical university worker is absolutely right: we are women under forty and both professional and academic staff. It’s a situation that disproportionately blocks career progression for younger people, women, people of color, and university workers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent. These groups struggle especially to find continuing work and rewarding work. We have a big job ahead of us. For example, at Melbourne University, 72 percent of the workers are casual and fixed-term. This is why it’s not enough to campaign on education. We want to go further and change the story — our goal is to actually end casualization.

AK

Although in a weak position overall, NTEU membership is currently higher than it has ever been. The upsurge in membership has been driven in large part by casual members. At the same time, the NTEU leadership is experiencing the most intense challenges to its authority from rank-and-file members ever seen. What is going on in the union right now?

AH

These issues really center around the Jobs Protection Framework. First, the JPF was rolled out without consultation. Then, the NTEU stifled any sort of deliberative or democratic debate within the union. Then they took a “concessions-first, negotiate everything” approach that sacrifices working conditions for the stated purpose of saving jobs. The JPF combined these three things: a lack of consultation, a lack of democracy, and a willingness to make concessions. So there was a lot of opposition. And now, debate has exploded within the union.

Right now, most rank-and-file union members feel they are being targeted by the state and by university management. And on top of that, there’s also an internal fight within the union. This has taken time away from organizing. Instead of debating strategy, we could have organized a really strong fight, demanding the government bail out our sector and pushing to end the neoliberal model of university.

HMS

To my mind, this reflects the basic crisis within the trade union movement that existed before the pandemic. The crisis goes back to when older, traditional forms of organizing were abandoned in favor of the service model of unionism [which focuses the union on resolving individual grievances and functioning as job insurance for members, rather than encouraging grassroots participation]. This put us in an incredibly weak position, in terms of organizing and industrial power. Management know this. It’s no secret, they know the data.

When I came into the role of CSU branch president in April last year, the very first event I attended at the NTEU national office involved a discussion with Jane McAlevey. “So serendipitous,” I thought, “at last we have a change.” Since then, there was a change of leadership. Just last October, the National Council [the union’s broader governing body] made a commitment to a new model that we think of as “deep organizing.”

Then, when COVID-19 hit, I think the National Executive panicked. I can understand why. I’ve been a member of four different branches in this union, and I’ve got a very clear idea about the level of organizing and industrial strength, particularly beyond the big universities. For the quiet universities — actually the majority of branches — the delegate structures aren’t operable. They don’t have full branch committees; there are often vacancies. And quite often, they are still very much working within the servicing framework. Or, alternately, they rely heavily on a very small number of beleaguered, often long-standing and devoted branch committee members to hold it all together. So the NTEU is in an incredibly weak position to defend against mass restructures, cuts, and redundancies. At the most recent National Council, in late May, a lot of the people who spoke in favor of the Jobs Protection Framework came from those universities and felt defenseless. And frankly, in many cases, they are defenseless.

This disempowered position is a partly a result of external attacks. But it also reflects decisions made by the union movement and the dominance of certain political agendas. And now, it sounds like this is starting to shift. Few people realize the NTEU is one of the few unions that isn’t politically affiliated with the ALP. This allows for a wider-ranging debate and more diverse political positions. We have stronger representation of Greens voters and socialists than a lot of other unions. On the other hand, we have members who support the National Party. So at the moment, the debate is trying to accommodate a pretty diverse range of positions.

AK

Speaking of the political agendas you mentioned, how do you view comparisons between the Jobs Protection Framework and the Prices and Incomes Accord (1983), which restrained union militancy in favor of mandatory arbitration?

AH

The Accord is a very contested chapter in union history. It was negotiation-focused and prioritized making concessions. If you look at how making concessions rather than focusing on the struggle to make gains undermined union power long term, there are similarities.

HMS

The Accord is one of the clearest examples in Australian history of the corporate class and the state calling on workers to make sacrifices for the national good. But economically and politically, it has not served working people’s interests, neither in the short nor long term. Both in Australian history and internationally, when workers’ wages, conditions, and job security are undermined, the result is a downward economic spiral that only advantages the elites and the capitalist class. This can lead us into a protracted downturn.

The interests of working people and the employing class are not the same. Simply handing money back to the government or the employers does nothing for working people. So with any approach like the Accord, which hands over pay and conditions, there needs to be an accompanying intervention to organize the working class to ensure that those benefits go back to working class people. With the Accord, there was no intervention of that kind. As a result, the Accord accelerated the neoliberal project in Australia; it was a key catalyst of the decimation of working-class power. So we need to ask ourselves: If we make the same mistake now, where will the new organizing forces come from?

AK

So if, instead of compromise, building a fighting union is the way forward, what does this look like, and how can it be achieved?

HMS

When I lead training sessions on organizing, I begin by explaining our goal. We want to have 90–100 percent of workers in the union, and we want them to participate actively and be strike-ready. In the context of increasingly unequal power between employers and employees, our most potent weapon is industrial action, even if our capacity has been eroded significantly. And if we aren’t able to exercise this power under any circumstances, then we are in an incredibly weak position. It will be difficult to defend anything previous generations of unionists fought for, let alone to advance anything. And this is critical, not only in terms of social inequality, but also in terms of the future of the planet.

At the moment, in the NTEU, we are miles away from that goal. Business as usual will not solve this problem. We need to experiment and adapt. We should also learn from the unions that are winning around the world. The best examples I’ve been come across are the education unions in the United States that are building according to a “deep organizing” model. The basic vision behind deep organizing is that every worker must be a member, and every member an organizer. This model is hard work: Jane McAlevey’s book is called “No Shortcuts” for a reason. But it does put forward a credible plan to rebuild. We haven’t had a credible plan in this union for as long as I can remember.

We held a members’ meeting that endorsed a deep organizing strategy. We undertook to actively redirect funds and organizing time away from servicing individual cases, redirecting them toward the new framework. We resolved that in the first instance, we will try to resolve all individual issues collectively, unless there’s a very clear case that the problem can only be dealt with individually. And as a result, our individual industrial caseload has dropped significantly, freeing up organizer hours for rebuilding on a more collective basis.

AH

Following the leadership change last year, the National Council discussed this approach. The union has committed to this deep organizing model. This means members aren’t contacting the union when they have a problem but are actually thinking, “How do I unionize my whole workplace?” And personally, I think now we have chosen this strategy, it’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle.

Also, let’s not be afraid to use the word “fight”! We should copy the Chicago schoolteachers’ motto: “fighting for the schools that our students deserve.” Like them, we are fighting for the unions and universities that our students and communities deserve. It’s not just about wages; it’s a complete shift away from a broken neoliberal model.

We need to remember all of the tools in our toolkit. We shouldn’t be afraid to say “strike” or to tell members that “everything we are doing right now in this campaign is to get you strike-ready.” This is what we were telling the people at Melbourne last year, even though our EBA [enterprise bargaining agreement] renegotiation doesn’t actually come up until the end 2021.

As well, everything we are doing should test strength: Don’t be afraid of math! Count how many people went to the rally. Count how many people signed your petition. How many of them are doing it again? Right now, the union is fixated on negotiation — but we can’t be afraid to use all our tools. Why aren’t we also thinking about industrial action? When you give people the tools to organize, you’re actually giving them hope for something better.

AK

The key ingredient for all of this is unity — but what does that mean for the NTEU today?

HMS

Our deep organizing framework depends on three key elements for success. Unity is one of them, but so are structure and participation. It is a fairly standard organizers’ credo that, in the interests of unity, you should focus on pursuing matters that are widely and deeply felt. There was no evidence of widely and deeply felt support for the Jobs Protection Framework. Even where it was voted in, it was with a low turnout and a low majority, indicating that support stemmed more from demoralization than genuine enthusiasm. Moreover, the groundwork was not done to develop unity around a position that everyone feels comfortable with and wants to fight for. Trying to manufacture unity from above is not genuine unity.

As for the question of leadership, I again look to the brilliant examples coming out of Los Angeles and Chicago. Organizing efforts there would not have gotten off the ground without strong, unifying leadership. I’ve been fortunate enough to hear from some of the leaders of the LA teachers’ union. They had a five-year plan — with strength and structure tests built in at key moments — to rebuild from very low, weak participation density and membership up to a union that is extremely powerful and makes real change. You can’t do that without a united, brave, creative, and courageous leadership that is willing to learn how to organize the rank and file and the so-called unruly mob at the branches into a disciplined force for change.

AH

There has to be discipline. McAlevey writes that organizing discipline has to come from strong leadership. So the question really is: Do we have a leadership adequate to seeing us through the struggle? Because right now, we’re just at the beginning. Are our union leaders going to be able to embrace the chaos of this moment, see the potential in it, and push through? People are learning the organizing methods. But discipline comes from a leadership that can focus on the broader goals. This means both reimagining our universities and foregrounding our organizational goals – 100 percent unionization; hot shops [workplaces with complete density]; strike.

HMS

We’ve also chucked out a lot of our old organizing methods. We used to pick a corridor to walk down, knocking on every door. That’s how we ran a recruitment blitz. But we just can’t do that anymore. Instead, we map; we chart relationships and do our homework. When people aren’t joining, we want to know their story and to engage the people they know and trust to recruit them. This is how we scale up our membership.

There’s another thing we say: “every member an organizer.” At 12 percent density, our union has very limited financial resources. We don’t have enough paid staff members to do the job. At CSU, we have one full-time organizer tasked with three thousand staff members — and that’s just impossible. So we can’t rebuild the union relying on paid staff. Some organizers who have been around a long time are afraid to acknowledge this. Indeed, some branch presidents really hate acknowledging it. But if it’s at all possible to find a way to bring those leaders with us, rather than just fighting them, I think it’s a far better way forward.

AH

Looking beyond votes on the Jobs Protection Framework, I’m thinking the same thing: we need to unify our branches. The future should not be about “how did you vote, were you a yes or no?” Rather, the struggle is just beginning now. So, whether members supported the JPF or not, the question is: What are we doing now to build power on the ground?

AK

You mentioned reimagining the universities. What would it mean to ask workers in the university sector what they wanted their work to look like?

AH

I don’t think the question of what our universities should look like can be divorced from the question of what our union should look like. One of the most inspiring things we’ve seen in the last few weeks was when rank-and-file members began organizing themselves and thinking about the future of the university. We now have horizontal networks across a number of universities.

So, right now, people are embarking on answering both questions. Beyond this, there’s an old saying among organizers that “workers are oppressed enough already, they don’t need to be told what they can and can’t do by their union.” I think this is something to live by. It’s great that members are re-engaging democratic practices in both institutions, in the union and the university.

These practices haven’t existed in the universities for a long time. To quote another Jacobin article, the universities were sick well before the pandemic. In addition to depriving vulnerable workers of security and control, neoliberalism undermined democratic university governance. University assemblies were removed; today, governance structures are very enterprise focused. At the same time, rank-and-file engagement in branches and branch committees was falling away. But all of a sudden, we’re seeing a resurgence. So, the two biggest questions I hear right now are: “when are the [union] elections?” and “what do we want to our university to look like?”

So, yes, we’re experiencing the shock doctrine in higher education — as are many other sectors. Management and the government will never let a crisis go to waste. But at the same time, it opens space for us to reimagine everything ourselves.

AK

What are some of the most inspiring developments of the last months?

AH

Workers are starting to see that they have collective power — and this gives us the power to create a crisis for the universities and, quite frankly, for the union. Because workers can’t access power vertically, they’re building it horizontally. That’s why we’re seeing networks form across universities; all of a sudden, organic leaders are coming out of the woodwork. There are so many connections being made, it’s a bit crazy and chaotic. But it’s really exciting.

At the University of Melbourne, we do have a fairly strong delegate structure of mainly casual workers — so we’ve been doing a lot of local organizing. We’ve been asking casual staff to organize the all-school, all-faculty meetings. And all of a sudden, it flips the power dynamic around. We have PhD students running meetings, knowing that the majority of the participants are [permanent] level A and B lecturers. As chairs, they are saying: “I’d like to take a question from an early career academic” or, “you, head of school, you’ve already spoken twice.” It’s fantastic; encouraging people to make their own solutions creates a space where we can imagine how we want the university to work.

HMS

It’s a really great problem to have when you can’t keep up with the number of people volunteering to help with union work. Whether they’re new or existing members wanting to help with the work, I feel like we’re always just a couple of days ahead of creating the tools, resources, and the training opportunities we need. Even though COVID-19 has created massive overwork on an unprecedented scale, we have a level of engagement with members that we haven’t seen at our branch before. We run training at least once a week, and sometimes twice. We also run after-hours sessions to enable those who can’t get away from work during the day to participate. And as well as training, people are coming to multiple meetings a week — there’s so much energy and willingness.

That’s what’s so exciting to me. It’s a willingness not just to participate but to learn how to do organizing work and to share those skills. Often I’ll train someone, and then they’ll ask whether I can send them the PowerPoint presentations so they can take them to their colleagues. We had planned to create a leadership with a distributed workflow before. But now that the situation has escalated and brought forward attacks, it’s emerging organically. It’s sporadic because of the context. But the crisis has also created a new willingness to step up and be involved.

AH

We’re university workers. We all know how to educate and research. I myself am professional staff, but I do research; it’s my job. So everyone knows how to do the things we are talking about. In the teach-in this week, we saw NTEU rank-and-file workers and putting something together themselves. And, of course, they know how to do it — they do it all the time — but now they’re doing it for union work, and it’s not just for the university.