Reflections on NTEU, Elections, and the Future

Edit 24/07/2022: Removed reference to an incorrect blog post.

Edit 25/07/2022: Sarah Roberts (from Better Workplaces) contacted me to clear up some of the things I said below. With her permission, I am pasting the whole email:

Hi Eric

First, apologies for the long email! I saw your blog post this morning and thought I would reach out to you around a couple of things you said in it.

The first is around the all-member email that went out advertising the “Enterprise Bargaining: Campaigning to Win” event on 2 August, about which you said “In my mind this is nothing but National, with the help of people in Div (some on the Better Workplaces ticket), playing dirty.”

I want to let you know that this forum was organised without my knowledge, and without Ruth, Joo-Cheong's or Adam's knowledge either. The first I heard of it was when I received the all-member email myself. I dug into it straight away and discovered that another staff member had organised the forum and sent and sent out the email off their own bat. As a member of the UniMelb bargaining team I was concerned by the fact that it had been organised at exactly the same time as the UniMelb log of claims approval meeting, at which we need to get a 400-member turnout. For this reason, I asked that the forum be pulled immediately. It's simply not the case that our ticket was playing dirty in organising this forum – we didn't even know about it.

The second is where you say “A lot of these wage theft campaigns have been helped by Div/National but started by casual networks unaffiliated with Div/National. Instead, they’re rank and file groups of people fighting for a common cause. Then they start to get traction and Div/National swoop in like Bill Shorten in a robodebt lawsuit. I’m sure the Div/National help is very welcome, but we need to acknowledge where it all started.”

First, I must reject your posing Div / National and the rank and file as a dichotomy – in my view we are all part of the one union with collective cause (or should be). Second, though, I want to explain my own involvement in the wage theft campaigns you're referring to so there can be no misunderstanding.

The basis of our success in all wage theft campaigns that have occurred to date has been enforcement of our existing rights, in particular rights around separate pay for marking and payment for all hours worked. Separate pay for marking was something we achieved in Round 5 of bargaining in 2012, at the initiative of the (then) National Casuals Committee, which I was instrumental in agitating for and establishing. I bargained for it and achieved it at several sites including at the University of Melbourne. In relation to the right to payment for all hours worked, again this was something I pushed at the University of Melbourne in bargaining, and won (might I say, without any particular rank-and-file casual involvement or support for it). My purpose in achieving these enforceable rights was always with the strategic purpose of running successful enforcement campaigns.

Subsequently I agitated at the University of Melbourne Branch for a campaign around breaches of the new payment for all hours worked provisions (wage theft). The casuals who were involved at that time weren't ready to run that campaign, but then, due to the sterling work of Branch activists like Annette Herrera, Geraldine Fela, Ben Kunkler and Nick Robinson, the casuals network was formed, courage was built over the next 6 months and we were able to run that successful wage theft campaign, winning back $10m in stolen wages for casuals. In my mind this was a collective effort, but in no way do I want to take away from the work of casual activists on the ground – every element is crucial in a winning campaign.

We then went on to run similar campaigns at RMIT (academic judgement rates of pay), La Trobe (piece rates) and now Deakin (again, piece rates). The casuals activists and the Branch leaderships there can tell you about the strategic role I've played in each. Collectively these campaigns have achieved success through, in my view, a combination of factors, in order: 1. establishment of enforceable rights 2. identification of enforcement / campaign opportunity 3. development of dispute plan with evidence-gathering via casual networks or similar 4. organising via Branch and casual networks, using digital and other tools 6. lodgement of dispute with management 7. rank-and-file participation in disputes meetings with management 8. further enforcement in FWC / courts if needed 9. LOTS of media 10. THE WIN!!

I really hope, whoever wins this election, we can move beyond posing the rank and file against the Union leadership, and achieve some unity. We all want the same thing, which is to win better conditions and pay for members and build our power. I think I've shown through my praxis that's I'm committed to rank and file empowerment and leadership of our wage theft disputes. Casual members telling their stories to management is the most powerful tool we have, and how we can win. But I also think the strategic overview of what we're doing, and the long term strategic plan for building enforceable rights (not just in relation to casual wage theft, but also on workloads and job security) that we can then enforce and win on, is equally important, and I believe that's what I contribute.



Do you like the title? It sounds so professional to me. I’ve been somewhat involved with the NTEU 2022 elections, although I’m not running for any of the ‘big’ office titles. I wanted to comment on what I’ve seen happen so far, and why I think it’s important people get involved and vote this election. In this post I link to the websites of the tickets, but that should just be a starting point if you want to find out more. Finding the campaign and candidates’ public social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, etc) can show you who they are.

Since this is an election piece, I want to try and list my biases right away. In the Divisional elections I have no strong feelings one way or another (“tell my wife, ‘hello’”). I’ll talk more about that below. In the National elections, though, my opinions are stronger. If you know me it’s probably not a surprise that I am a strong proponent of A New NTEU. The previous General Secretary stepping down instead of running again has given us a greater opportunity to reshape the NTEU into a more progressive union, one that doesn’t run from the fights at the forefront of being for everyone. A New NTEU gives us the chances to increase transparency into the way the union works, which I think is desperately needed.

Quick run-down on me: I am a former VP (General) of the Deakin Branch. I recently stepped back to be an Ordinary Committee Member. I have been, and will continue to be, a National Council member for Deakin (General tagged). This means I am also part of Division Council.

Victoria Division has been through its share of difficulties, and the culture (although I hate using that term, sounds wanky) of the division is a bit of a mess, both amongst NTEU staff (from what I’ve heard/witnessed) and amongst council members. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and it’s all happening at the same time all the member branches are going into EA bargaining. I don’t know why every university’s EA expires around the same time (I think there’s a year/year+half between the first and the last), but it’s good because while it can be chaos for the poor NTEU staff (and I do sympathise), it allows the whole university sector (and some TAFEs/other tertiary education facilities) to bargain on points. The fact we’re into year three (!!!!) of COVID and Universities still want to run their campuses and neoliberal hellholes is ridiculous. All this is to say that it’s a very busy time in NTEU, particularly at the division level, and Vic Div is on the back foot. I believe a large amount of that can be due to the mentioned difficulties, combined with a General Secretary who allowed it to happen.

The two candidate tickets for Division are Union Power and Better Workplaces. I say I have no strong feelings here because I know whoever gets in as division secretary, they’re going to foster a better and more effective environment than the previous division secretary. Union Power is Annette Herrera and David Gonzalez. Better Workplaces is Sarah Roberts, Joo-Cheong Tham, Ruth Jelly, and Adam Fernandes (incumbent). You’ll notice one ticket has twice the people that the other does. This could lead to things like split results, but I have seen all the involved people in action and am confident they are ultimately on the same page and really care about the union. I will be happy with whoever gets in and look forward to working with them.

A screenshot from The Simpsons of Marge at a betting window saying "Can't I just bet that all the horses will have a fun time?"

This leads to National. In the National race are the previously mentioned A New NTEU and Strong United NTEU. A New NTEU is made up of Fahad Ali, Anastasia Kanjere, and Andrew Beitzel. Strong United NTEU is made up of Alison Barnes (incumbent), Damien Cahill, and Gabe Gooding (incumbent).

Strong United says they have experience being in NTEU management, but as A New NTEU will point out, that seems like a detriment. To me it feels like we are at the precipice of “business as usual” and “reform the union”. I personally see “reform the union” as the preferred choice because what we are doing right now doesn’t seem to be exciting or captivating people. I know everyone has been through hell the last few years, and I appreciate the people that have the energy to keep fighting. It’s an uphill battle to keep people engaged and excited. That said, all the successes we’re seeing in unions from around the world seems to be coming from rank + file deep organising. A New NTEU knows how to do that. The incumbents (including the departing General Secretary) pushed through agendas that involved working with management and keeping things ‘status quo’, while the members were drowning. The last National Councils have been disappointing, with “establishment” playing politics to get their stuff passed and shooting down anyone else that wanted to do something different. You can say, “yeah, that’s the game”, but I don’t like that. I don’t think it has to be like that. I think A New NTEU would give us straight forward, no-bullshit game playing, leadership. I don’t have confidence that the Strong United ticket will give us the same. The two incumbents were around when the General Secretary did what he did. As far as I know there’s been no comments from either of them on the out-going General Secretary (besides the giant “not on the ticket” message), and I somewhat understand why they haven’t said anything, but at this point it just feels like the “ignore the problem, it will go away” attitude of people in National that got Vic Div into such trouble.

With that said, let’s talk about what is happening around the place this election. All the people currently in positions of NTEU management are of course using this as an opportunity to get their name out there more. I guess again, “that’s the game”, but it feels slimy. The NTEU has rules in place to give all candidates equal time/space/opportunities, but the grey area of “doing their current role” allows some exploitation. The bright side is we seem to get much more communication on what’s happening from Div/National these days. The downside is half of it is just fluff meant to get the name out there.

Something more egregious though, in my opinion, is that candidates who are “in the system” already (Strong United particularly) are using their current roles to have meetings, give speeches, etc. As an example, Vic Division attempted to have General Secretary candidate Damien Cahill come speak to us/our members as part of his role as NSW Division Secretary. It was a whole presentation, just by him, a day before the elections were meant to start. In my mind this is nothing but National, with the help of people in Div (some on the Better Workplaces ticket — see the above email from Sarah Roberts disputing this), playing dirty.

Poster for Vic Division members' meeting with Damien Cahill's name promenently displayed

It’s worth noting this got cancelled quickly after it went out, with Uni Melb (the branch at which Annette and David from Union Power currently work) letting Div know they had a log of claims meeting at that time. There appears to be a very loose association between the “establishment” tickets of Strong United and Better Workplaces, and between the “upstart” tickets of A New NTEU and Union Power. I have zero knowledge of this, but my guess is the log of claims thing was Union Power helping A New NTEU and throwing a wrench in the dirty plans. I think everything about this was political bullshit games, and I’m so sick of those.

The next day another meeting invite went out, this time to all NTEU members. It’s for a regular Friday afternoon session (sent out by Alison like normal), but who happens to be on the presentation list? Alison’s running mate Damien. I am not saying that Damien doesn’t have knowledge he can share when it comes to bargaining (NTEU division has had a couple strikes already!), but I think a line should be drawn when people are running for a position, especially something as big as General Secretary.

A poster for Friday Sessions, a members' meeting that happens on Friday afternoon. Damien is listed as one of the speakers.

I also wonder if a poster has been made for past Friday Sessions (I honestly don’t know). Finally, notice the red of the arrows in the background as compared to the background they’re using on their “endorsement” graphics:

An endorsement for Strong United using a colour pallette that is similar to the above poster for Friday Sessions

I may just be hypersensitive and disillusioned with NTEU National management, but everything quacks like a duck these days.

I have watched the NTEU handle a growing, more progressive, base over the last few years, and have expressed my disappointed before (NTEU and Transphobia blog post) blog post). There’s a reactionary “no, it’s fine now” attitude while we bleed members who think the union doesn’t do anything. That needs to change. Something like 50-70% of the workforce at each university is in insecure work (casual, fixed term). It seems like the further you get from being a casual (again, up to three quarters of NTEU’s perspective members) the more you forget about what it is like. I should mention that I’m not casually employed, and haven’t been for a long time, so I am probably out of touch too, but less so than some of the people running for the positions. Either way, while we fight casualisation and insecure work, we still need to accept that insecure workers are a majority of who is working universities these days, and we need to fight for them appropriately. A lot of these wage theft campaigns have been helped by Div/National but started by casual networks unaffiliated with Div/National. Instead, they’re rank and file groups of people fighting for a common cause. Then they start to get traction and Div/National swoop in like Bill Shorten in a robodebt lawsuit. I’m sure the Div/National help is very welcome, but we need to acknowledge where it all started. NB: Sarah Roberts responded and disputes my view of it in an email at the top.

It’s not just how casuals are handled, although that’s a big one. There’s been fights (with more to come, I’m sure) about how LGBTQIA+ (current focus on the TQ) are treated. There are fights about access to member lists for organisers/delegates, how much NTEU management gets paid vs what a member makes in their role, how to organise, etc. I said earlier this was “establishment” vs “upstarts”, but it feels like “facebook” vs “twitter” in a way. There’s a growing contingent of progressive people who don’t like the current setup and think it needs to change for a variety of reasons, and a shrinking population of more conservative people who think the current setup is good overall. These numbers can be seen in how progressive motions get voted for in the last couple National Councils. I encourage you to be part of the progressive people. Be part of the people who are for a fully inclusive (in actions not just words) union. It’s not all sunshine and roses now, and it won’t be no matter who gets in, but to improve and grow we need people who can make changes and aren’t afraid to try new things. A New NTEU is that.

Please investigate the candidates/attend (equal time) meet and greet sessions, etc., and vote when it comes time (starts August 10th). This is important, and the future direction of the union is at stake.

If you read through this, you’ll see I use a lot of “seems” and “appears” type words. This is because I have no knowledge and am just calling it like I see it, with all my biases in place. I may be right; I may be wrong. That’s fine. To the people whose campaigns I accused stuff of: if you get in, please don’t punish my branch for how I see things. We’re sick of that treatment, and I’m doing this independent of them. Treating us badly again would just be more dirty politics I’ve previously mentioned hating. I’ve also written and posted this without talking to/running it by anyone/any campaigns that I’ve mentioned. Thanks for reading.