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Thu, May. 21st, 2009, 06:44 pm
My day at the University strike rally.

One of the highlights of my day was seeing the statue of Redmond Barry - the statue that stands outside Victoria's State Library, holding up a union banner.

Redmond Barry was very much an aristocrat. He was a notorious hanging judge (he's the guy who sentenced Ned Kelly), as well as a bit of a buffoon. Whether you agree with Ned Kelly's sometimes dubious ethics or not, it's acknowledged in historical circles that the guy didn't get a fair trial in Redmond Barry's court. Barry presided over similarly farcical trials in regards to the Eureka rebellion (only public pressure prevented him from hanging everyone involved - no Melbournian jury would convict!). And he was a man who took an inordinate amount of joy from sending poor people off to do hard labour (or to their deaths).

If you see a statue of a person around Melbourne, you can be pretty sure that you're looking at a fairly hideous human being. We don't make statues of decent people. (The most humane statues you'll see are the mythical scene of St George slaying the Dragon, and Joan of Arc - much as i appreciate Jeanne's revolutionary nature, i don't think she's there for her anti-British politics.) The Eight-Hour-Day Monument doesn't have a statue attached to it, because statues are built by those who can afford them. Barry's statue cost ₤1000, a lot of money at the end of the 19th Century. We generally have our statues put up by wealthy institutions such as the Melbourne Club, and these sorts of clubs have a pretty sordid list of "heroes". Redmond Barry is one of these aristocratic heroes.

So there was something funny about seeing the old cretin holding up an NTEU flag.

Why was Mr Barry holding up a banner? Today the NTEU (National Tertiary Education Union) held a strike. The immediate subject of the strike was the negotiation of a new contract for University employees. Basically, lecturers and tutors and other academic staff at universities are ripped off whenever possible by Australia's universities (Monash, Uni of Melbourne, Deakin, RMIT, LaTrobe, Victoria Uni, Swinburne - there are no 'good' university managements). They are often on casual contracts, which gives them poor job security even though they may have been working somewhere for many years. I know of academics who spend maybe 10-12 hours a day keeping their departments running and keeping their academic discipline alive, but who are paid part-time.

Reasons Behind The Strike

They also work under poor conditions. For the past thirty years or so, Australian universities have been badly mismanaged. There has been the development of a culture of managerial bullying within some institutions. Researchers are expected to spend much of their time looking for grant money; numbers of publications and values of grants have been used as indicators of performance. In many cases, these are very poor performance indicators. Staff at universities have also been censored. Paul Mees, for example, was sold out by his colleagues for making disparaging remarks about our woeful Department of Transport. He was explicitly given a pay cut for saying things that were contrary to the government's interest - they made no secret out of the reason he was punished. Obviously, this is a dangerous precedent.

Large swathes of staff have been fired at the major Melbournian universities in recent years. When Howard came into power, Monash lost most of it's archaeology department. Class sizes have risen, partly as a result of this: university managements have obsessed over maximising student intakes while minimising the staff needed to serve them.

The people who run universities have a dispicable attitude toward students, often describing them as "customers", working against their interests by raising HECS fees and by embracing "full-fee" placements. Its all about making money. And this focus on the bottom line has also resulted in poor conditions for students, with university "administrative" fees and fines, with universities demanding students pay for material that should apparently, under the current law (not that our lawmakers are any friends of students), be provided free.

Basically, Australian universities are badly mismanaged at all of the major institutions, and the tertiary education system is being slowly killed off by government policies (and yes, that includes the supposedly "left"-wing ALP government; in fact, i believe it was ALP governments that brought in the "Dawkins reforms" during the 1980s: these are the reforms that have caused much of the damage i'm describing).

So today there was a strike, to shut down the major universities as an act of protest to force University managements to actually pay attention to the demands of their staff. Picket lines were set up on some campuses, to ask people not to enter on account of the strike (though plenty entered anyway). I went to both Melbourne Uni and RMIT to see the pickets and help out.

The Rally

The strike was to be marked by a rally at 1pm at the State Library, and there were people from RMIT and Melbourne (both of which are just up the road from the rally), Deakin, Swinburne, LaTrobe, Vic U and VCA there as well. VCA is an interesting case - according to people i spoke to at the rally, they're being absorbed by Melbourne University, and their student union is about to be abolished completely. Melbourne Uni is apparently denying them funds, despite having taken "ownership" of the campus. Perhaps they're just eliminating a competitor?

It turned out some of our obstacles tend to be Union management. The student union at Monash University, i know from direct experience, is fairly right-wing. The dominant party will make claims to being left-wing, they'll sing "Solidarity Forever" when they win an election, they'll campaign for better student conditions (though not too strongly), but they basically come down on the right-hand side of many issues (and they explicitly oppose student unions campaigning on any issue not directly related to students on campus (e.g. voting down a simple motion to make a mere statement on the recent massacres in Gaza)), and watching them in a Student Council session is like watching a group of young children playing at Bureacracy - it's terrifying to imagine that these people are the politicians of tomorrow. They did very little to inform people about the strike, and apparently there were similar attitudes coming from student unions at other universities.

And the NTEU union leadership is fairly toned-down. Their membership is far more radical than their leadership. I and some other demonstrators had a discussion about this today. There was a large number of dedicated staff at the rally, and if the guy with the microphone had established an "Open Mike" - a Speakout - we could have been there for hours! We almost definitely would have been there for hours. These people gave up their paychecks for the day - they had something to say! They deserved to have something positive to do, to make themselves literally heard.

But the rally was called off at about 2-ish. The interesting thing: everyone kind of stuck around anyway. There was a general air of surprise that we were finishing so early.

The guy who called it off early (and who controlled who did and didn't speak) made a comment about how crazy it was that University staff expect less fair pay conditions than the people who stock shelves at the supermarket.

This comment met with a general embarrassed silence from the crowd, some of whom (myself included) have probably had such jobs before. In fact, there was an MUA (Maritime Union) representative there, and i wonder what he made of that comment, seeing as the MUA represents "lower class" jobs as well. I certainly didn't see why shelf-stockers should be less well-treated than anyone else. There were other comments this guy made that caused me and my friends to wonder whether he really got it.

Interestingly, this same dude who called things off early was also the moderator at a meeting about six months ago of NTEU members, which i attended. They were voting on a resolution. When it got to the part of the meeting where you ask people to comment on the resolution, HEAPS of people had something to add to it, but he just kind of shot them down! And they were all trying to make the resolution much more radical than it actually was! It didn't happen, no modification of the resolution was permitted. Once again, these people wanted to do something bigger. (It wasn't just the people who stood up and tried to add something, either - i heard similar comments from the people sitting around me. These people weren't young uppity students like myself - they were academics.) I should really get this guy's name. And this is not an unfamiliar story - union leaderships in the past have always been notoriously unreliable, and are almost always much more right-wing than the unionists they supposedly represent. It's like a microcosm of society. There may be a lesson to be drawn from this.

The Picket Lines

I convinced a few people not to cross the picket line at RMIT today, and it felt good being able to connect with people one-on-one. A few kind words can go a long way. And i definitely had an impression that many people supported what was happening, most simply didn't know about it in advance.

Some awkwardly crossed the picket line, mumbling something about having presentations today - and this is something that some University staff members actually forced them into. (I heard from others that there were very 'conveniently' scheduled mandatory classes of various kinds.) Mostly i didn't think less of them, i know what those pressures are like. After speaking to others at my place of work (which is on-campus), we decided to close down for the day rather than cross a picket line. But i don't know what i would've done if my co-workers hadn't been so sympathetic; i would've felt some obligation to turn up regardless (though thats partly because i actually care about my particular workplace (and it's not at all aligned with University management) - i'm lucky in that respect).

Then there were the ratbags; the people who yelled abuse, who tried to tear down some of our signs, who made motions towards physical violence. They were in the minority, and largely reminded me of the pathetic group of Young Liberal students who turned up to the anti-VSU rallies - imagine a crowd of 5,000 students protesting against the Howard government, meeting about ten Young Liberals holding up their adoring photographs of John Howard and Peter Costello. That was the image that popped into my head whenever i saw a virulently anti-union person, so it was hard to be angry at them in that context (i.e. when they're so clearly powerless).

All in all, an interesting day, but much too brief.