The workers weren’t united and yes, they were defeated

An analysis of last year’s peak union job protection strategy is scathing

Last year the federal leadership of the National Tertiary Education Union responded to the COVID-19 crisis with a proposal for union-overseen, member approved, temporary cuts to wages and conditions in return for reducing redundancies.

The National Job Protection Framework was adopted by half a dozen or so universities but rejected by the managements of many more, and loudly condemned by NTEU activists who rejected the idea of cooperating on cuts with universities.

In what may be the first academic analysis of the campaign, Alexis Vassiley (Edith Cowan U) and Francis Russell (Curtin U) suggest the plan was misconceived, offering concessions from a position of weakness.

“The union had, perhaps unwittingly, helped to frame cuts to pay and conditions as a neutral and unavoidable technocratic response to the pandemic, insofar as the union helped to popularise the notion that pay cuts save jobs,” they suggest.

They add, there is “no evidence” that universities with local job protection agreements had fewer job losses than does that didn’t. And they suggest reducing labour costs, “at best, could only postpone the problem of insufficient government funding.”

Instead, they propose, the union’s leadership could have confronted managements, campaigned against the government, recruited on campuses and prepared for industrial action, “the only real leverage workers have.”

“Despite concession bargaining appearing superficially necessary in times of crisis, its experience in Australian higher education, and the premises underpinning it, demonstrate that a reset in industrial strategy is more likely to benefit higher education workers,” they conclude.