Why join a union in a university?

University of Sydney 2013

A couple of weeks ago I sat on the stage in a graduation ceremony in the Great Hall at University of Sydney – the one that looks like a piece of 15th century Cambridge built by a terrible surveyors’ mistake in an Australian paddock.  One of my PhD students was being awarded her degree, after 5 years’ hard work.

As I looked at the other side of the hall, where the parents, partners and children were sitting, I could see why public universities matter, and need to be defended.  For all the depressing news from Canberra about funding cuts, fees, league tables and the rest, universities are important institutions, which people in the wider community value.

Rightly.  This is the most advanced part of our whole education system, responsible (among other things) for producing the knowledge and the workforce for the rest of the education system. Though Australia doesn’t produce more than 3 or 4 percent of the world’s scientific publications, our universities produce most of the knowledge about Australian society and environment – and bring knowledge from the rest of the world into Australian life.  This country would be a sadder as well as poorer place without a flourishing university system.
But universities are becoming more difficult places to work in.  The neoliberal era since the 1980s has seen seen a spectacular decline in real government funding of university budgets, and a heavier and heavier reliance on student fees.  We have seen the rise of corporate-style management, with million-dollar-a-year Vice-Chancellors and their entourage sounding, and behaving, like big businessmen.
That means more authoritarian decision-making, undermining of industrial democracy, downward pressure on staff wages and conditions.  That is not temporary, nor a product of bad character.  It is a logic now built in to university management.  And it is undermining universities as public institutions.
When I wrote my open “Letter to Michael” during the 2013 enterprise bargaining struggle at U of Sydney – triggered by management’s attempt to degrade conditions as well as cut real wages – I told our Vice-Chancellor that unions are an important asset in university life.  Among other things, unions will cut through the public-relations guff and tell what the real problems are, where the shoe pinches.
Now I have studied some of the bizarre proposals about university futures coming from management consultants, not to mention the latest round of toxic policymaking in Canberra, I would say more than that.  The union is now where the most creative and well-informed policy discussions about universities are happening.  If Australian higher education is to change for the better, much of the thinking will come from the active membership of the National Tertiary Education Union.
Being a unionist is not just about protecting our own interests and security – though that’s not a trivial matter, with proposals for more casualization and outsourcing surfacing almost monthly around the country.
"I love teaching but casual work breaks my heart!"

Being a unionist is also about taking responsibility for what happens to our colleagues and fellow-workers - for making sure there are fair deals across the workforce. That has become particularly important as managements have pursued divide-and-rule strategies.  Universities now have groups of staff in very different situations, in terms of insecurity as well as income, and it is important to have strong links across these differences.
There’s an old union song called “Solidarity Forever”.  Though it’s too sentimental for many people now, it makes a valid point.  Responsibility is shared, and it’s joint action rather than individual action that counts most.
Joint action creates a certain culture in unions, and a certain personal experience in being an active member.  I’ve been in a number of different union branches, and I’ve always found shared membership a source of deep support.
I know that unions can become hierarchical, bureaucratic or factionalized, and I’ve known some that are all three.  But unionism always has democratic possibilities.  Unions express, in a way that nothing else does, the ideas, concerns and needs of the people who work at ground level – who actually make the economy work.  Unions can be vibrant and inventive.
(An aside: it says something about where creativity comes from, that there’s a great wealth of union and social movement songs, and a great absence of management songs.  Can you imagine a group of middle managers sitting around a camp-fire in the gathering dark and belting out a chorus about next year’s financial modelling, or the unique thrill of sacking workers who don’t meet their KPIs?)
Being an active union member gives you responsibilities and it does impose demands.  You have to commit time and energy.  You sometimes have to follow a majority decision that you disagree with; that’s part of respecting your colleagues. You may be called to act in local disputes that become highly personal; at other times you will be called to think about broad strategy.
Being an active union member can be hard.  It can also be exciting and creative.  Shared activism generates energy, as well as demanding it.  You are dealing with important issues and you have a chance to make a real impact on them.  In some ways it can re-shape your life, with new ideas and new friendships.  When I look back, I realize that the union has been an important part of my life, and my thinking, throughout my career. I hope that is true for a new generation too.

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