On 19 August, several rank and file union members (mostly from CUPUW) organised an all-day Zoom symposium on the topic of organising precariously employed workers. The Organise Your University Right Now symposium featured four major panels that addressed local, national, and cross-sector organising. The event was well-attended throughout the day (peaking at about 80 attendees), with lively discussion centring on the shared experiences of organising and striking in the university sector (both in Australia and internationally), the nuts and bolts of ‘deep organising’, and unionism in other industries.
As part of CUPUW’s guest speaker series, Tilde Joy shared their experiences as the former president of Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) on 27 August. Joy gave a potted history of RAFFWU, from its formation due to the repeated failures of the conservative Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association through to a number of recent successful RAFFWU industrial actions. A robust discussion about the nitty-gritty aspects of negotiating, and fighting, with management followed! Of all the good advice Joy provided, the most salient piece of wisdom was perhaps this one: aim high with your demands and avoid getting bogged down in the details before you’ve secured in principal agreements on items under negotiation. A big thanks to Tilde. We hope to see you again soon.
Last Thursday, 10 September, CUPUW hosted a forum with officials from the United Workers Union (UWU), Sukanya Ananth and Pareen Minhas. While some unions seem paralysed by the pandemic, UWU, which represents workers in a range of industries, has helped members win several victories through staunch industrial action. For example, at Spotless Laundry in Dandenong (in Melbourne) workers walked out after management failed to respond to a covid outbreak in the workplace. Spotless launders, among other things, linens from aged care and medical facilities, putting its workers and the public at imminent risk. For more see Ananth’s interview with the two activists who led the action.
In our meeting, Ananth and Minhas spoke eloquently about the joys and challenges of organising in their UWU portfolios and fielded a range of questions. It was an inspiring discussion that not only highlighted the importance of solidarity with workers in other industries, but also the need to strengthen ties with the service workers in our university campuses and international students. We thank Pareen and Sukanya for their time and hope to talk with them again soon!
Australian journalists, the Senate, and NTEU officials have recently displayed considerable interest in wage theft in Australian universities. Has the hubbub and survey data collected by the NTEU’s National Office generated more wage theft campaigns? The answer to this question is not yet clear. It is, however, a crucial question as the organisation and mobilisation of insecure workers and students at the local level has underpinned successful wage theft campaigns. More NTEU resources for casual organising (dedicated casual organisers for all branches for instance) would be great, but we cannot bank on that happening. Several experienced activists have shared their tips for getting a wage theft campaign started at your university.
- Know the rules. Learn how your university’s payment system is supposed to work by examining your EAs and talking to your colleagues. If you (understandably) find the EA hideous to behold, read your local NTEU branch’s Smart Casuals handbook. Don’t be put off by the patronising name—these handbooks contain useful distillations of policies and processes codified in your university’s EA.
- Talk to people. Ask your (non-union and union) colleagues what their most pressing underpayment issues are. You’d be surprised how much working conditions vary between schools and faculties. Urge your friends to talk about wage theft with trusted colleagues. Personal networks are indispensable to your campaign.
- Find hotspots. Once you’ve got a group who are willing to do the hard work of running a campaign, locate wage theft ‘hotspots’—acting collectively is powerful. Ask your NTEU branch committee for the data from the National Executive’s wage theft survey. If you can’t get your hands on the data or the data is unusable, send your own wage theft survey to your NTEU branch committee, higher degree research committees, reading and writing groups, as well as any other organisations that would be willing to distribute it. Surveying staff will allow you to start mapping wage theft in your university.
- Work log. You’ll need to start work logging. A humble spreadsheet will do the trick, but some activists have had greater success using free time tracking apps, such as Toggl. Effective logging involves some preparation. Categorise your work so that you can determine how much time you spend on a particular task (lecture and tutorial prep, student consultation, meetings and so on). Your objective should be to establish a strong team of work loggers across schools and faculties. To ensure a degree of data consistency, you should try to standardise the categories used to record work. But this might not be possible given the diversity of casual work. Don’t worry too much—the most important thing is that your work loggers are gathering data.
- Ask questions. Follow the lead of some NTEU branches and directly ask your university’s leaders (deans, provosts, and heads of school) about what systems are in place to ensure that staff are paid correctly. Politely pester them. By diplomatically broaching the subject of wage theft with management, you’re gathering evidence that you’ve tried to consult with them; thus, entrenching on the moral high ground before a more public campaign has even begun.
- Reach out. Wage theft is common in highly-casualised sectors. So, reach out to unionists in other industries. Invite them to forums to share and discuss tactics. Though bonding over shared experiences of wage theft might seem bleak, it is a good way of establishing relationships across sectors.
- Get students involved. Inform student representatives that you’re beginning a wage theft campaign. As a cohort, students (particularly international students) experience wage theft. They’re on your side because as the tutor you are often their closest contact with the university. Build solidarity. Students will likely sympathise with you. They’re also a political force equipped with the moral authority to demand that their fees go towards maintaining and improving teaching conditions, which are (of course) your working conditions.
- Run two tracks. Whether you are starting to organise your workplace from scratch around wage theft or your union branch has lodged a dispute with HR or Fair Work regarding underpayment, don’t stop building worker power while waiting for the promised legal remedy. Resolution can take some time. Run your organising on two tracks. The first track is the seemingly endless meetings with HR. Maintaining pressure and keeping momentum with petitions, posting, rallies and so on is the second track. These are parallel tracks that occasionally intersect. So, when HR grants a meeting it is time to increase the pressure by amplifying dissent. If your time is not soaked up by negotiations, your job is to come up with creative and spectacular ways of demanding that your heads of school, deans, and VCs pay the bill.
Melbourne residents who are living alone are doing it tough. One CUPUW activist describes having been in partly-voluntary isolation since March due to health risks associated with covid. She has been unable to make any physical contact with friends or family. “It is literally illegal for me to hug someone right now. I never thought I would live in a world where this is the case. I am Queer and am used to constraints put on my relationships, but this is something else. Some days are incredibly tough.”
A report from Monash University, soon to be published in the Medical Journal of Australia, provides data from a survey of some of the 25% of Melbourne residents who live alone. The report provides a better understanding of the lockdown measures’ effects on physical and mental health. In an article in The Age, Jane Fisher of Monash explains that those “with the greatest likelihood of experiencing poor mental were people living alone, those having lost a job, those being fearful of contracting COVID-19 and those experiencing the restrictions is having very adverse effects on their lives.” As thousands lose their work across the university sector, it is important that we keep an eye on our newly unemployed, solo-living friends, and activists. If you or anyone you know is struggling with the effects of the lockdown measures, please contact Lifeline (13 11 14) or Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636)—both are 24-hours services.
With only a week’s notice, over 150 union activists joined a NTEU meeting to launch a new campaign against job and budget cuts last Wednesday (9 September). The meeting featured reports about the horrendous treatment of staff in many campuses over the past few months. People are being sacked without proper notice and forced to work on campus in unsafe conditions. Wage theft and overwork is rampant. About 900 jobs have already been lost at RMIT, and almost as many are being targeted for redundancy. Staff are angry and getting organised.
The new NTEU campaign rests upon many months of opposing cuts and job losses. RMIT NTEU Branch was among the first to reject the so-called ‘Jobs Protection Framework’, with local activists from CUPUW, Fightback and NHEAN uniting to oppose the National Executive’s dismal proposal. There are 80 delegates in the University whose efforts are instrumental in a number of local campaigns in IT, the library, and the College of Business. See RMIT Branch’s website to get involved.