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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 2003

Academics in Australia Protest Government Proposal

Strike takes place at universities across Australia Oct. 16.

Last month, more than 40,000 university staff across Australia staged a 24-hour strike that shut virtually all the country's 38 public universities. University staff were protesting against plans by the government to take away their rights to bargain collectively and have freedom of association.

The Conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard has pushed legislation through the House of Representatives that ties more than $400 million in federal funding to requirements that universities adopt policies that strip staff of workplace rights won over decades.

National Tertiary Education Union president Carolyn Allport said institutions and unions had a right to continue collective bargaining without unwarranted intervention by the government.

"(The government's) action is against all international standards of the institutional autonomy for universities and will involve significant compliance costs for institutions," she said.

"Stripping back standards on redundancy, termination and workplace consultation will do nothing to improve the quality of education provided by our universities and is inconsistent with the principles of academic freedom and collegial decision-making."

Education Minister Brendan Nelson lashed out at the striking academics saying their action would harm the nation's 700,000 university students who are approaching end-of-year exams, but left the door open for possible concessions.

"Of course, I will listen to reasonable and constructive arguments in relation to refinements of the package," he said. "But we are not prepared to see major elements of these reforms cherry-picked."

The opposition Labor party education spokeswoman, Jenny Macklin, accused the government of seeking to impose unreasonable and ideological industrial relations conditions.

"(We) want university management, staff and their unions to be able to sit down and be able to sensibly negotiate enterprise agreements together, without the heavy hand of the Howard government getting involved," she said.

The NTEU said the success of the one-day stoppage sends a clear message to the Senate.

"The vast majority of university staff is opposed to the government's proposed workplace requirements for universities and want the Senate to block these requirements when they come up for consideration," Allport said.

There were two exceptions to the Oct. 16 action. At the University of New South Wales, which already has an enterprise agreement (contrary to the government's prescriptions), staff did not go on strike but took part in the Sydney protest action. At the Australian National University, more than 800 staff members attended a meeting at which vice chancellor Ian Chubb signed a three-year enterprise bargaining agreement with NTEU, which did not incorporate any of the government's proposed workplace requirements.

CAUT and many of its local and federated associations sent messages of support to their Australian colleagues. In a letter to their NTEU counterparts, CAUT president Victor Catano and executive director James Turk wrote, "The CAUT executive reviewed the Australian government's proposal ... and was appalled by the measures being put forward. We applaud the resolute determination of your members to fight against the government plan.

"Please convey our strongest expression of support and solidarity to your members ... We hope your strike will help make the government realize the folly of its ways. CAUT is prepared to do whatever it can to assist you in this fight. Your success will be a victory for academics and for the quality of public higher education around the world."