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Sydney university staff will be striking for 48 hours this week. Image: John Appleyard

‘Enough is enough’: Sydney Uni staff to strike this week

Sydney University staff and students are set to strike over academic job security and working conditions after the union says management failed to respond to its proposals.

On Wednesday, people from all walks of university life will be at the picket lines despite management stating that “industrial action will make no difference to the course of negotiations,” said National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) Sydney University branch president Nick Riemer.

Speaking to Campus Review, Riemer said negotiations with university management have been ongoing since August. 

“At a recent bargaining meeting, they told us that they weren't even interested in discussing some of our most important proposals at all.

“This expresses the indifference or maybe even the contempt that they have for their own employees.

“The strike is there as a way to press our point, to show that staff have had enough,” Riemer said.

Due to the pandemic, strikes at the university have not happened since 2017. Riemer believes that this year the level of preparation and commitment to the industrial action is unprecedented. 

“If we don't make progress, we're going on strike for a further day on May 24th and then we'll be back on strike in the second semester. 

“We’ll strike for as long as it's necessary.” 

According to Riemer, the proposals made by the NTEU are “realistic and necessary” and emerged following consultation with academics and support staff. They are:

  • recognition & improvement of work
  • an end to disruptive change
  • reasonable work from home rights for professional staff
  • management & performance review practices
  • enforceable targets for Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander employment
  • a fair pay increase
  • an end to forced redundancies
  • enforceable controls on workload for all staff
  • preservation of the right to a 40% research component in academic workloads, and
  • an end to exploitative long-term casualisation.

“These are the changes that we think are necessary to the university. It’s the most detailed log of claims that we have ever served on management,” said Riemer. 

Casual staff on the frontline 

According to Riemer, “the permanent threat of redundancy that hangs over [staff’s] head that management uses as a controlling tool” must come to an end.

One of NTEU's proposals is to resolve the issue of long term casualisation. 

“Over half of the workforce at Sydney University is in precarious employment,” he said. 

According to Jeffrey, a casual tutor in the School of Economics, most academic staff such as PhD students and other tutors rely on being casual as their main source of income. 

“It is a difficult situation, especially when you don’t know if you’ll have a job in six months,” Jeffrey told Campus Review

“You have to keep reapplying, keep proving to the university your worth, when it feels like the university has really relied on casual staff’s labour without giving too much back.

“A lot of academics saw the threat of being out of work due to administrative changes.

“The university didn't communicate or consult with us, nor made decisions with regards to staff needs.”

Since the pandemic, university staff conditions have worsened due to redundancies, leaving remaining staff to pick up the slack. 

The economics tutor says the university expects academic staff to take consultation hours, respond to emails and student queries outside of class hours. 

“We are expected to do quite a lot of work for no pay; this is a big financial challenge.”

Jeffrey believes finances also play a part in casual staff decisions to strike as they won’t get paid, unlike people on salary. 

“It is a really difficult decision but ultimately a really strong message choosing to strike,” he added.  

Casual tutor in the arts faculty and University of Sydney Casuals Network branch representative, Dani Cotton believes that casual staff often find themselves in a difficult position. 

“There is a lot of fear. A lot of casuals are incredibly fearful to sign a petition, let alone striking,” Cotton told Campus Review.

“They are not confident to speak up about their conditions. They're worried that if they do so, they might be singled out.”

According to Cotton, the current university hiring system is ”incredibly chaotic” with people teaching outside of their field of expertise as management is trying to find "anyone they can possibly get as classes start next week".

“They end up hiring someone who frankly is not appropriate for the job,” added Cotton.

“Job security means having tutors who know their discipline, and they know the latest cutting-edge research and they can bring that to the classroom.

“We need long-term casuals converted into permanent roles, and we also want long multiple year fixed-term contracts for those casuals.”

Cotton believes that this insecure job environment pushes talent overseas, as “it is the only place people can get a job”. 

“So many amazing tutors and teachers leave and students end up being the ones who lose the most out of this.”

Students back their lecturers up

University of Sydney Student Representative Council (SRC) president Lauren Lancaster says the students’ union is standing in solidarity with academic and teaching staff. 

“We've been trying in the campaign to build up the strikes, to make sure that students understand that staff working conditions are our learning conditions,” Lancaster told Campus Review

“We've seen mass casualisation at campuses across the country that hit women and vulnerable people the most because they're overrepresented in those lower levels of academia.”

Since the pandemic, Lancaster has seen an increase in the caseworker service at the SRC, where students come for help with special considerations, assessment problems or if they've been mistreated by the university.

“We've seen a massive uptick in cases, 150% since pre-pandemic, and that shows that students are really struggling with their mental well-being. 

“They're struggling to complete their assessments to a standard that is good enough, and there's just an extraordinary amount of pressure being placed on people.”

“[The University] doesn't support students with disabilities or people who are vulnerable in terms of COVID, for example.”

Lancaster believes that the pandemic exacerbated stress for students making it apparent that “the university is operating like a business”. 

Third year environmental studies and political economy student Alana Ramshaw will be striking alongside her lecturers this week.

“For the strike to be effective, they need support, they need their students backing them up,” Ramshaw told Campus Review. 

According to Ramshaw, students can see to what extent their tutors are struggling while doing the best they can to provide a good education. 

“Casual teaching staff are here because they care. 

“One of my tutors lectured and taught classes from her bed when she had COVID.”

Ramshaw says the lack of lecturers impacted her studies as some of the classes she wanted to take were not made available.

“I don’t feel like I get what I paid for in my degree.

“It all comes down to the university not supporting their staff and therefore not supporting their students,” added Ramshaw. 

USyd response

Campus Review contacted the university which said via a spokesperson that this strike is "a disappointing move, with premature and unnecessary action" as management is still in negotiation.

“It’s been a difficult time for the higher education sector, and we still face an uncertain future. We want to make sure that we reach an agreement that enhances our sector-leading wages and conditions and supports research and teaching excellence.

“We have ongoing fortnightly meetings scheduled to July and are working to reach agreement on a range of matters, some of which have not yet been raised for full discussion.

"While we respect the right of staff to take industrial action, we are disappointed that the NTEU has chosen prematurely to pursue unnecessary industrial action.

“The University will continue to be open and operating on those days.

“Our position will not be shifted by industrial action, but by good-faith negotiation at the bargaining table. On our side, we will continue to engage transparently and in good faith and keep our community updated,” the spokesperson said.

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