Some thoughts on the current debate in the NTEU

14 April 2020. Some thoughts on the current debate in the NTEU which I hope people will find useful, whether or not they agree.

The national executive has broken solidarity with the membership

A vigorous debate is currently underway among NTEU members as a result of the National General Secretary’s email last week informing them that the union was going to make very significant concessions to employers in response to Covid-19.

The first thing to stress is the very serious breach of solidarity that the union’s national executive has shown in adopting, without any consultation with members whatsoever, a controversial, maximally concessive negotiating position.

Since members became aware of the national leadership’s position last week, some have been worried about the risks of adopting an overtly combative stance towards it. This concern about us creating division in the NTEU seems to me to be misplaced: in going behind members’ backs to negotiate with VCs – we only learnt through the media that these negotiations were happening on Saturday – it’s the union leadership which is endangering the cohesion of the NTEU, not the members who protest against it.

Faced with a lapse of solidarity of this magnitude, members have a responsibility to express our disagreement, and to do so rapidly and assertively. That is the only strategy which has a chance of reversing the damage the national executive is doing and of avoiding locking the union in to a very damaging set of concessions. As a result of the Sydney University branch immediately passing a censure motion against the national executive, and the ‘No concessions’ campaign starting its petition, there is now a much more widespread members’ debate in the NTEU than there would have been otherwise.

Starting negotiations with maximum concessions is a dangerous sign of weakness

The second important point is the extreme weakness of the negotiating position the NTEU has adopted.

As the National General Secretary outlined last week, the union is effectively giving employers carte blanche to dismantle hard-won conditions, and in particular to defer pay rises. For a union that continually stresses its left-wing credentials, this is a far weaker position than the one adopted by the CPSU, the usually more conservative union that competes with the NTEU for coverage of university professional staff in NSW.

The CPSU has condemned the government’s announcement of a 6-month delay in public-sector wage rises. There’s no reason to think it wouldn’t have the same position in the case of universities. This is an infinitely better stance than the usually more radical NTEU has seen fit to adopt.

Not only is the NTEU leadership signalling that pay losses are ok; it’s also giving managements a green light to throw casualized staff under the bus. At the outset of the pandemic it offered 3 months free membership to casuals, but when its first big opportunity came to show that it has a genuine political commitment to them, it’s completely cut them loose.

As if all that isn’t bad enough, it’s also not talking about any serious concessions from management as a trade-off for the sacrifices it’s prepared to force onto staff. The General Secretary did, it’s true, mention a few demands: cutting management salaries, suspending capital works, reducing expenditure not related to the workforce. But these savings measures are all happening to some extent already in many universities.

There was no sign that the NTEU leadership is planning to use the crisis as an opportunity to extract politically harder concessions from university administrations, for instance around greater workplace democracy or staff input into decision-making.

These kinds of concessions would cost nothing, but they haven’t even been mentioned. All the tough sacrifices are on our side, and the fact that we’ve made them without anyone yet asking us to, and without demanding anything in return except a vague commitment to protect jobs (how? whose? for how long? with what guarantees?), shows just how little fight the leadership has in it.

This can only lead Vice-Chancellors to conclude that they’ll have no serious opposition from the NTEU, and encourage them to use Covid as an excuse for the cost-cutting measures that many of them have been fantasizing about for years. Casualized colleagues and fixed-term staff will be the first victims. In this context, it’s up to members to signal that they will defend everyone’s conditions, those of our most vulnerable colleagues first and foremost.

The idea that the NTEU will be able to negotiate with VCs to secure, for example, the conversion of casuals as a trade-off for concessions seems to me to be entirely utopian. Even without an economic crisis of the proportions we’re now seeing, university administrations do everything possible to obstruct casual conversions. At Sydney, they do this even when the university is in surplus. The idea that they will agree to any such measures now, just because we ask them, and without any sign that we’re ready to flex some industrial muscle, is unrealistic in the extreme.

The National Executive’s position will lose us members

We have to be honest that what we’ve seen in the last week gives us evidence of deeply bureaucratic, antidemocratic, and antiprogressive tendencies in the union leadership. Recognizing this is not necessarily a matter of attributing bad faith to the leadership team in toto: one of the things that makes our situation so dangerous is that some of the leadership at least, and maybe all of it, no doubt actually believe that this is what’s best for us and best for the NTEU.

But we have to be realistic about the other motivations that are also likely to be driving the national executive, as much through an ingrained ‘habitus’ as through any consciously held intention. Dampening down members’ expectations of what can be done has the spin-off of lowering pressure on the union’s leadership to actually organise a serious fightback, and softens the membership up so that, when the nasty announcements are made, they are seen as inevitable, and not as the result of a set of political choices to which the union has contributed.

This strategy will lose us members and weaken the organisation. The NTEU makes a lot of its commitment to grow its membership, but when you look at the forecasts in last year’s annual report, you find it wasn’t actually anticipating any substantial growth on that front (p.9). That means the spike in casuals it’s just experienced is ‘surplus to requirements’, so to speak, as far as the national office’s budget for the year is concerned.

Many members have been shocked at the union’s concessive position. Not just members: union branch committees and, I suspect, many union staff too. I was also caught by surprise. Actually, though, the approach we’re seeing in response to COVID-19 is largely in line with the known existing politics of the Union leadership.

The current National President has been an advocate of so-called ‘interest-based bargaining’, an approach to enterprise bargaining negotiations promoted by the Fair Work Commission and described as ‘focussing more on exploring common interests rather than just “arguing the toss” around respective claims and counter-claims.’

As well as Matt McGowan, the signatory of the email that catalyzed the present debate, the president’s national leadership team includes an Assistant National Secretary who won her position by running against a candidate calling for more assertive industrial action and bargaining. The union’s national leadership positions are, then, clearly occupied by industrially conservative figures who are sceptical about the value of exerting industrial power.

Next steps

It’s unclear at this stage (to me, at least) how the results of negotiations with VCs at the national level will be implemented locally. McGowan’s email spoke of the need to adjust responses to the situations of individual universities. Does that mean there’ll be a baseline national deal which all branches will be asked to adopt, perhaps with local variations? Will this necessitate renegotiating EAs locally? Will that initiate a new bargaining period with the possibility of industrial action that that brings?

If the national leadership’s position doesn’t change, organising for a No vote on an NTEU/employers’ deal will have to be the key priority of members who want to see an actual fightback. In one regard, we’re in a strong position, in that shock at the union leadership’s bargaining position is widespread, including among more conservative members, and including among BC members.

In some ways, the government assistance package announced on Sunday has tilted the balance very marginally in our favour, not because it offers us anything substantial, but because it shows that government support is possible.

The difficulty will be persuading members that however disappointing it is, the union leadership’s strategy isn’t ultimately the only realistic one. That difficulty will be compounded by the fact that the leadership controls all the means of communication with members: this Thursday’s NSW Division online forum, which apparently won’t include any opportunity for questions or discussion from members (let’s hope I’m wrong about this), suggests no interest in hearing what members think or giving a platform to opposition.

The union leadership will obviously work hard to sell its analysis and impress on members the need for confidence that the officials know best. McGowan’s email last week was very clear on this: it didn’t contain a word about fighting and not a breath even asking members to do anything other than sit back, peel the wrapping off another Easter egg, and wait for the next update from the control room.

In the case of individual branches taking strong initiatives that go beyond the national position in local implementations of a deal, there’s a real risk of an intensive effort from the state and national leaderships to wrest control of the process away from members and into the hands of state and national officials. This has happened before: in 2017, for instance, the union leadership pulled out all stops to prematurely end the EB campaign at the University of Sydney after just one strike. Paradoxically, local successes at strong individual branches that go too far beyond the national norms present the national leadership with a problem: they place the bar uncomfortably high, suggesting that with the right organising strategy similar results could be attainable elsewhere, and raising the awkward question of why some branches – those with vigorous grassroots organising – are stronger than others.

To justify not adopting an ambitious strategy, the national leadership are likely to invoke, precisely, the state of the weaker branches. They’ll no doubt say that for the sake of branches that have few members, we have to adopt a national approach which leaves the initiative not with local branches, but with the national executive. This is exactly the sort of argument they have made before.

This is a defeatist logic. It sees the strength of the NTEU nationally as secured by active branches not expressing, and thereby failing to build, their full industrial potential. That logic can only lead to the gradual erosion of individual branches, and to weakening of the NTEU nationally. The only real way we can show solidarity to, and strengthen the NTEU nationally, is to set an example of militant, assertive organisation. This makes it urgent to strengthen local organising and branch democracy. Securing a good outcome at industrially strong universities sets a precedent which can be appealed to at weaker ones.

In the slightly longer term, industrial action, whether protected or unprotected, will certainly be necessary – if not immediately, then definitely in next year’s EA round. This could be preceded by an intensive effort to draw more members into the NTEU, in the first instance by slashing dues in a similar way to what has already been done for casuals. In this light, it’s positive that the NSW division had developed a bargaining strategy predicated on all branches being strike-ready by the start of the EA period.

With everyone either stuck at home, isolated and vulnerable to pressure from employers, or under the threat of job-losses in a shrinking economy when campuses reopen, the current period is in many ways unpropitious for collective industrial action, either now or when we negotiate the next EAs. But this is the hand that we’ve been dealt, and assertive action will be necessary to prevent things getting even worse. Nothing in the record of bureaucratically negotiated, supposedly consensual deals between unions and employers, founded on a fictitious community of interest between us, gives us any reason to believe that they are a better option.

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