Australia: Call for united action blocked at Newcastle university rally

National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) leaders at the University of Newcastle, north of Sydney, last week attempted to physically block a member of the Committee for Public Education (CFPE) from opposing a sell-out and calling for a unified struggle of university workers around the country.

John Davis, a postgraduate student member of the NTEU, and a member of the CFPE, established by the Socialist Equality Party, was verbally abused and physically stopped from speaking at a trade union rally during a 24-hour stoppage at the University of Newcastle last week.

Before the rally began, Davis asked several times to address it. The response of NTEU state secretary Michael Thomson was to abuse him, telling Davis to “f*** off… you are not interrupting our union rally!” Other union bureaucrats then moved to prevent the CFPE member from reaching the platform.

Eventually, Davis did manage to make an impromptu address to the audience, declaring: “You are all witnesses, the union is refusing me, an NTEU member, to speak because I disagree with them… The union is preparing another sell-out with this enterprise agreement.”

After the rally, Davis told WSWS reporters he had intended to explain that any struggle by workers for improvements to their conditions now needed the formation of workplace rank-and-file committees, entirely independent of the trade unions, the Labor Party and the Greens. These committees would need to reach out to other universities and other sections of the working class in order to mount a unified struggle against rapidly declining wages and attacks on working conditions—affecting not only university employees, but all workers, as well as students. Such a struggle would have to be animated by a new, socialist perspective, representing the interests of the working class, not the corporate and financial elites.

The thuggish behaviour of the NTEU bureaucrats served to reveal the anti-democratic character of the union, and its determination to prevent any impediment to reaching a deal with university management. It is already clear that this enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) will pave the way for further cuts to staff pay and conditions, and ever deeper attacks on the rights and conditions of students.

NTEU members at the university had met earlier in the month to vote for the strike—an expression of the growing anger and frustration among university workers at ongoing corporate restructuring, stagnating wages and casualisation.

However, the union’s perspective was to use the stoppage as a bargaining chip to finalise the EBA with management. That is why they could not allow any expression of dissent.

The university’s NTEU branch president Tom Griffiths told the rally: “We’re here because we have been in enterprise bargaining for over a year, making pretty reasonable claims.”

“Pretty reasonable claims” is a euphemism for the union’s accommodation to virtually every demand of university management. And the “24-hour stoppage” itself was a sham. It consisted of a three-hour “picket” at the Newcastle inner-city campus, the smallest of the three main campuses, where staff and students alike were able to freely walk on and off the premises.

Throughout the day, the NTEU’s main concern was to ensure minimal impact on university operations, with many lectures, tutorials, IT services, security and the administration itself all still running as normal.

The fraudulent “picket” was followed by an hour-long rally comprised of trade union cheerleading and calls for the re-election of a Labor government. Approximately 130-150 people attended, including members of parliament and delegations from the Australian Workers Union, the Construction Forestry Mining Maritime and Energy Union, the Electrical Trades Union and Hunter Workers.

The NTEU’s suppression of debate was consistent with its refusal to circulate resolutions passed at Sydney’s Macquarie University NTEU branch on June 19, and tabled by CFPE supporters, which opposed the division of university workers through enterprise bargaining and called for a unified struggle to reverse the decades-long cuts to conditions.

No sooner had the September 17 stoppage ended, than the Newcastle Herald reported that the NTEU would continue negotiations with management the next day. Griffiths told the media: “We are having another enterprise bargaining meeting tomorrow where we would love to resolve the outstanding issues.”

Likewise, a university spokesperson said: “[With] a small number of enterprise agreement matters to be resolved, we continue to encourage the NTEU bargaining representatives to work with us at the bargaining table rather than causing more disruption for our students.”

At the rally, Griffiths revealed that management had proposed a pay increase of “1.68 percent per year, well behind the rate of inflation.” This amounts to a wage cut in real terms, despite the fact that “management have had a pay increase of up to 17 percent in the last couple of years.”

The NTEU’s outstanding demands centre on maintaining the “consultative” and “committee” structures through which it collaborates with management to implement “restructuring” and job cuts. While making minimal requests for a small number of casual and contract staff to be permitted to apply for full-time jobs, the union has done nothing to halt ongoing casualisation.

Politically, the speakers at the rally sought to foster illusions in the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) #changetherules campaign, which seeks to divert the mounting discontent among workers behind the re-election of another big business Labor government.

Local Labor Party member of state parliament Tim Crackanthorp was welcomed onto the platform to promote the party’s election campaigns.

Leigh Shears from Hunter Workers (formerly known as the Newcastle Trades Hall Council) called for support for the ACTU campaign, supposedly to curtail the laws restricting the right to strike.

Shears did not mention the fact that all the trade unions backed the last Labor government in introducing the Fair Work Act, precisely to prevent workers from taking industrial action. Nevertheless, he provided a revealing outline of the pro-business perspective of the unions.

“Bargaining was set up on the proviso or the belief, that workers and their bosses would sit at the table, act constructively, bargain, workers would get fair wages, decent working conditions in exchange for productivity increases,” Shears stated. “But for years and years workers have been expected to lose their hard fought conditions… all the while, we can out-perform the world in productivity gains.”

In other words, enterprise bargaining, introduced by the Keating Labor government and the ACTU in 1993, has always been principally concerned with maximising profits, which must come at the expense of jobs and working conditions.

No resolutions were proposed at the rally, because its aim was only to appeal to the university management to conclude another such agreement with the NTEU. In order for workers and students to fight for decent conditions there must be a decisive break from the unions, as Davis made clear. We urge all those who wish to join that struggle to contact the Committee For Public Education (CFPE).

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[11 September 2018]