Three groups vie to shore up discredited Australian university trade union

There is widespread hostility among Australian university workers to the role of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), particularly since it imposed unprecedented cuts to jobs and conditions during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, on top of decades of facilitating the corporation and casualization of the country’s public universities.

Striking NTEU members at the University of Sydney on May 11.

Over the past two years, the NTEU has blocked any unified struggle by university workers against the devastating destruction of at least 40,000 jobs, while it struck deals with managements to sacrifice wages and conditions. This enabled the employers to post huge profits for 2021, topped by a $ 1.04 billion surplus at the University of Sydney.

A rank-and-file revolt in 2020 prevented the NTEU from imposing an across-the-board “job protection” agreement with the managements to permit wage cuts of up to 15 percent, as well as the axing of 18,000 jobs. But the NTEU then proceeded to collaborate with individual managements to impose similar attacks, university-by-university.

Far from an aberration, this bitter experience for university workers displayed the true nature of all the corporate trade unions. It showed that these apparatuses are not workers’ organizations at all. Instead, they tie workers to the profit requirements of their employers, riding roughshod over the opposition and interests of their own members.

In a revealing sign of the resulting collapse of the NTEU’s support and membership, three teams within the union are contesting August’s elections for the NTEU’s top posts. These are desperate efforts to head off the disaffection and prevent workers from breaking out of the grip of the union apparatus.

These attempts to “renew” the NTEU, or even create a “new NTEU,” are occurring just as the working class as a whole faces a cost of living crisis and a confrontation with the recently-installed Labor government, which has already signaled its intent to cut social spending and suppress demands for real wage rises to match the soaring living costs.

The first team consists of the existing NTEU national leadership, augmented by the nomination of a new general secretary, the current New South Wales state secretary Damien Cahill. The second group, running under the banner of “A new NTEU,” is standing Anastasia Kanjere, a “rank-and-file activist” for general secretary on a platform of overcoming the “crisis of trust” in the NTEU. Another team, calling itself “Renew NTEU,” is seeking to take control of the NTEU’s Victorian state branch, on promises of “empowering branches.”

Whatever their tactical difference, these formations are all seeking to shore up the decaying union, while securing highly-paid posts for themselves. They are trying to keep workers straitjacketed within the pro-capitalist framework of trade unions, which have been transformed over the past four decades into the industrial police forces of declining wages and conditions, and accelerating levels of wealth accumulation by the corporate elite. The false illusion peddled by all three slates is that the union can be “reformed” and pressured into fighting for the interests of their members.

To carry out this perspective, all three have stood by with unstated agreement while NTEU officials, including the University of Sydney branch president Nick Reimer, a supporter of the pseudo-left Solidarity group, have barred Committee for Public Education (CFPE) and Socialist Equality Party (SEP) members — striking workers themselves — from speaking at strike rallies. This should be a warning to all university workers. These anti-democratic methods are a reflection of the pro-business program these groups would themselves impose in office.

NTEU reshuffles

With the departure of the discredited NTEU general secretary Matthew McGowan, NTEU national president Alison Barnes, an ex-member of the now defunct pseudo-left International Socialist Organization, recently tweeted her “excited” support for Cahill. Barnes said Cahill was “the ideal person to provide the leadership our union needs to build a strong and united NTEU.” But both Barnes and Cahill are equally disgraced by the 2020 sellout, in which they were both involved.

Matthew McGowan and Alison Barnes (Photos: 2021 NTEU annual report)

As proof of Cahill’s credentials, Barnes referred to her followers to a “must read” June 2 Conversation article by him, in which he bemoaned the hundreds of millions of dollars in surpluses recorded by universities around the country, yet said nothing about the 2020 betrayal, which he helped inflict, or how it enabled the managements to profit handsomely by axing jobs and conditions .

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