NTEU Fightback: Rank and file rebellion in a most unlikely union

by Diane Fieldes and Jordan Humphreys • Published 25 July 2020

This article could not have been written without the tireless work of the members of the Socialist Alternative NTEU caucus and SA industrial organiser Jerome Small in every aspect of the fightback in the NTEU.


The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally transformed the university sector. On one hand, campuses have experienced a sharp fall in revenue, triggering a financial crisis, with huge cuts to wages, jobs and courses on the cards. At the same time, the sector has seen an unprecedented surge of rank and file union activity that has achieved some important, if tentative, wins. This article will explore the issues raised by the struggle so far, with the hope of arming a new layer of activists with the arguments they need to carry on the fight, which will undoubtedly extend for years to come.

The sector is expected to lose up to $19 billion over the next three years, primarily due to a sharp drop in international student enrolments.[1] But this crisis didn’t come out of the blue. University workers have been under pressure since Labor’s introduction of student fees in 1989. Since then, both Labor and Coalition governments have slashed federal funding per student. Students now graduate with large debts. Meanwhile, vice-chancellors have expanded revenue by enrolling hundreds of thousands of overseas students who pay high up-front fees. University bosses have increasingly looked to employ low-paid and insecure casual and contract workers to cut costs in their enterprises. Less than half of universities’ “full-time equivalent” workers have secure ongoing positions and more than half of all teaching is done by casual staff. As an immediate response to the crisis, Australian vice-chancellors have already laid off thousands, and increased the workloads of the workers who remain.[2]

Shamefully, the top officials of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) responded by surrendering without a fight. In an email to members on 8 April, the NTEU general secretary Matt McGowan wrote: “To protect jobs, we may need to consider measures that we would never normally consider. These may include deferral of pay rises, providing the ability to direct taking of leave, or other cost saving measures. Any changes must be temporary and proportional to the loss at each university”.[3] Later the NTEU officials announced a “national jobs protection framework” (JPF or “the framework” in what follows) to offer to university managements before members heard anything about it. It involved cuts to wages and conditions in exchange for nebulous and unenforceable undertakings about saving jobs.

Matt McGowan explained the underlying rationale behind the framework at a Q&A session at RMIT on 25 May: that the framework would give the union

a form of authority that it hasn’t had in over three decades. A national framework where the union is at the centre… We’ve not had that sort of authority in decades. And this will significantly improve the union’s ability to impact on the future structure and direction of the sector. I’m not saying that’s all written into the agreement, that’s not. That’s a comment about the way in which this dynamic can play out, if we play our cards right and we do what needs to be done.

The NTEU officials were thus prepared to sacrifice their members’ livelihoods for a seat at the table in implementing the cuts.

This approach won the support of Liberal education minister Dan Tehan, who found time between raising student fees and gutting government funding to praise the “very good discussions going on at the moment between the university sector and the NTEU”.[4]

Yet just two months later, the national framework was dead in the water. A rank and file rebellion led by a coordinated network of activists across the country destroyed the officials’ hopes for a national concessional agreement. The campaign introduced grassroots activism into workplaces where it has been mostly lacking, as lively meetings of hundreds of staff proliferated across a sector with a weak history of union activism. The campaign posed political issues about the purpose of unions; do they exist to help manage the “industry” alongside bosses, or should they oppose attacks on members at all costs?[5] As well, the role of socialists in such a fight was sharply posed, given the long history of ex-revolutionaries climbing the rungs of the NTEU bureaucracy.[6]

None of these political questions are unique to the NTEU. A severe crisis such as that revealed by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic throws everything in society into sharp relief. Despite decades of defeat and retreat from Australia’s union movement, sections of unionised workers, including most of the public sector like university workers, have maintained above-minimum wages and conditions. All of these entitlements are now under threat. This makes the resistance of NTEU members to the current attacks important to all workers. Further, despite the initial victory, union officials have not given up on the class collaboration that underlies their strategy, and have successfully pushed through versions of the agreement at a local level. It is yet to be seen how the workers respond to this new and more difficult situation.

The nature of the NTEU

Much of what follows is relevant to the class struggle in any union but there are a number of features of the NTEU that make the fightback within it somewhat surprising. To begin with, the union continues to suffer from its pre-history as a series of academic staff associations that did not see themselves as part of the union movement. This tradition, as well as the individualising effect of academic work – with personal endeavour rather than collective struggle as the road to better pay – have not been conducive to union consciousness.[7] Compounding these issues is the fact that a majority of the members are still academics rather than professional and technical staff, who tend to have less idealist and middle-class conceptions about the university and their role within it. While there is a tendency in every union to identify with the industry in which it operates, this is stronger in the NTEU than most: when heads of departments, deans and even vice-chancellors can be members, it is no wonder that there is a greater propensity to see the union as a “partner” in the well-being of the sector.

Union density is no better than the abysmally low average across all workplaces, and the NTEU’s delegate structure is weak. Union elections are more often than not uncontested for lack of candidates. The elected officials have no real base of support and little connection to the campuses, beyond the organisers and branch leaderships. One way in which this can be seen is the top officials’ reliance on the union machine of paid organisers and elected officials to get the vote out against the rank and file opposition – there is little organic loyalty or commitment to the union leadership to be found among workers.

In other ways, the sector looks a lot like many others. Decades of federal government underfunding and corporatisation of management have resulted in unsustainable increases in workloads and stress; massive casualisation and constant restructures and redundancies have made job security a rarity even for those on continuing contracts.

Neoliberal education

Having been deliberately starved of government funding despite a long-term boom in enrolments, the sector evolved to depend on overcharging hundreds of thousands of international students in order to make its profits. The industry is now “broke” because of the deliberate policy of successive governments. Australia’s university sector has been redesigned to manufacture education for export. Prior to the pandemic, international student fees made up around a quarter of the university sector’s revenue.[8] As successive governments have cut university funding, universities have been encouraged to enrol increasing numbers of international students to make up the shortfall. Between 2008 and 2017, revenues from fee-paying overseas students increased from nearly $19 billion to $32 billion. At the end of 2019, there were over 200,000 Chinese international students in Australia (28 percent of the overall international student population). Education services for international students are Australia’s third-largest export earner, after iron ore and coal.[9]

There is also a long-term trend in Australian higher education, pursued by both Labor and Liberal governments, to better align higher education with the needs of big business. Since 1989, when a Labor government introduced student fees, higher education participation rates have more than doubled. Increasingly, employers expect graduates to have a skill set tailored to business needs. Recently announced increases in student fees for humanities subjects, while reducing those for science and technology, teaching, nursing and other subjects supposed to produce so-called “job-ready” graduates, continue this trend.

The vulnerability of the existing set-up has been exposed by the global pandemic, which means that university managers are now facing losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Some have threatened to close entire universities unless harsh attacks on jobs, wages and working conditions are pushed through. Universities Australia chairwoman Deborah Terry told the ABC in April that she estimated 21,000 university jobs would go within six months.[10]

The government has refused to provide more than token amounts in assistance to the sector. It has made sure university workers at public universities are ineligible for the JobKeeper scheme, though it was happy to subsidise the private universities. The government’s agenda cannot be understood as many commentators do by reference to culture wars. Instead they see an opportunity to continue the process of eroding the relatively good conditions enjoyed by an important public sector workforce, and they hope it will be an example that will spread. University bosses want to undermine wage rates, hours and other legally enforceable conditions in enterprise agreements. So university managers everywhere are taking advantage of the situation to attack their workforces.

Bureaucratic betrayal

In an email to staff at La Trobe university, vice-chancellor John Dewar asked for voluntary contributions to help cover the revenue shortfall, but also noted that, “We cannot guarantee these measures will be enough to prevent…stand down [sic] or even forced redundancies”.[11] This gives the lie to the NTEU officials’ argument that concessions will save jobs. As Dewar wrote, there are no guarantees that will be the case. Instead, vice-chancellors will take what the officials have offered on a platter and proceed with further redundancies and stand-downs. The experience at UNSW is indicative, with a massive 493 job cuts announced in July, despite the fact that hundreds of staff had already agreed to cut their hours and thus their pay by an exorbitant 20 percent, under the misguided apprehension that this would save jobs. In a crisis, the ruling class will be ruthless. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s early waffle about “no blue teams versus red teams…no more unions versus bosses. There are just Australians now, that’s all that matters. An Australian national interest and all Australians working together” is a cynical lie.[12] It is their class alone that benefits from the idea that there is a common interest between workers and bosses.

By the end of June the hospitality and clerical unions had already conceded or even co-sponsored concessionary deals that gave up key workplace rights for their members. At the national level ACTU secretary Sally McManus has promoted this class-collaborationist line. In an interview with the ABC’s Insiders program on 5 April, she praised the government’s proposed $130 billion JobKeeper wage subsidy.[13] Having spent the early months of the pandemic in daily meetings with industrial relations minister Christian Porter, McManus went a step further in May, indicating she was willing to enter into a new Accord-style agreement to reform the industrial relations system, sitting down with employer association representatives to come up with changes. The joint union-management-sponsored attack on enterprise agreement conditions in higher education has become the most high-profile example of this trend not because it is unique, but because it has faced substantial resistance.

All of this is nothing new. The branding “Accord 2.0” reflects the roots of this approach in the original Prices and Incomes Accord struck between the ACTU and the Hawke Labor government in the 1980s. It involved the unions accepting pay cuts in return for vague and unenforceable commitments by the government around job creation and consultation with the union leaders. Rather than demanding government funding and higher corporate taxes to fund welfare, education and healthcare, the Accord took money out of workers’ pockets in order to invest in the “social wage”. This process was hugely successful, from the point of view of the bosses. The proportion of GDP going to workers dropped more in Australia than in the UK and US, despite Thatcher’s and Reagan’s best efforts. Worse, the Accord destroyed union militancy by promoting the idea of unions as partners with bosses rather than their enemies. Militant unionists, branches and entire unions were isolated and destroyed if they dared to resist the new orthodoxy – not by the bosses and the government – but by other unions. This set the stage for the tame-cat unionism that has predominated ever since.

Under the Accord the role of union leaders became one of preventing strikes and pacifying workers. The result was a drastic decline in union membership and the level of industrial action. In the 1970s, more than half the workforce were union members. Today, fewer than 13 percent are. Industrial action has collapsed from an annual average of 3,146,000 days on strike in the 1970s, in a population of about 13.2 million, to just 145,000 in the 2010s, in a population of 25.5 million. The political culture and norms of the union movement were transformed as the Accord undermined the autonomy, self-confidence and militancy of unions’ workplace organisations and entrenched traditions of deferring to leaders and the ALP.[14]

The NTEU officials are drawing from the same playbook. A briefing provided to national councillors in April boasted that there would be “a strong union role in managing the introduction of any cost-saving measures”, much of which will be made through trashing existing enterprise agreements. At stake here is not simply the union members’ wages and conditions, as important as that is. It is the very basis of unionism, its goals and tasks. The idea that union representatives will be equals on “implementation committees” with management to work out what cuts to make to members’ conditions and wages in line with this anti-union government’s agenda sounds more like the propaganda of 1984 than a union agenda. It can only neuter members’ ability to fight and further undermine the very basis of unionism.[15]

In any union, the officials are under pressure from their members below, who want to defend and improve wages and conditions, and from employers and governments above, who want to maximise profits and the economic growth it generates. Consequently, as British Marxists Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein argued: “At all decisive moments the union bureaucracy is bound to side with the state, but in the meantime it vacillates”.[16] The pressure from above has been intensified by the COVID-19 crisis. Nonetheless, the rank and file revolt in the NTEU that subsequently unfolded shows that resistance from below is possible. It can establish and expand workers’ organisation independent of the officials, and with it their sense of solidarity within and across workplaces. Largely due to opposition from their own members, the attempt by the left officials in the NTEU to establish their wage-cutting framework across the industry did not succeed, unlike the original Accord.

The fightback

Within a few hours of receiving the email from general secretary McGowan on 8 April, revealing the monumental sell-out members faced, two Socialist Alternative NTEU members had written a response published on the Red Flag website, arguing that giving away pay and conditions will not save jobs and only undermine the union. They pointed out that union leaders representing workers in sectors like clerical and hospitality had already negotiated award changes and that in exchange they’d got nothing but unenforceable promises of job security. The same was true of the deal proposed by the NTEU officials.[17] The following day, Socialist Alternative NTEU members met to plan an initial response and build resistance. By the evening they were contacting other union activists with an NTEU Fightback – No Concessions sign-on statement.

Starting with a few dozen socialists, the NTEU Fightback group connected networks on campuses across Australia, including forging national links where none had existed before. The local area, campus and national “vote no” meetings were sizeable, attracting hundreds of people who rarely come to union meetings and activating many who had attended only passively in the past. Dozens of local area meetings took place across campuses to discuss what was wrong with the framework and its political implications for the sector. With the whole union apparatus against the No campaign, rank and file members had to sit down with a list of names, map their campus and figure out how to win the No vote, how to shore up the waverers and how to refute the officials’ lie that cuts in wages or conditions will save jobs. Most importantly, they had to build up workplace networks of activists, the essential foundations for union strength, through meetings and individual discussions. Central to this was setting up an NTEU Fightback – No Concessions Facebook page and website, which provided regular, sometimes daily, emails to keep members informed, helped coordinate the fight against concessions and issued leaflets explaining the situation and criticisms of what was known about the officials’ proposals.[18] Hundreds of members were drawn to union branch meetings, which became scenes of furious discussion and debate – when they weren’t suppressed by officials.

The strategy of making concessions on hard-won wages and conditions, especially without mounting a fight, ignited fierce debate in the union. At the University of Sydney on Thursday 9 April, rank and file members overwhelmingly censured the NTEU’s national executive for its willing collaboration in undermining the members’ rights. The motion was carried 117 to 2. Local officials had refused to put the motion on the agenda for the meeting, so Alma Torlakovic moved it from the floor. Censure of national union leaders is rare, but activists at Sydney University had the confidence to take this step because of their unique local experiences. Industrial actions on that campus have been stronger than elsewhere, with more serious picketing and strike action deployed during enterprise bargaining negotiations in 2013 and 2017. As well, Alma Torlakovic in particular has a history of organising struggles aiming to defend and extend conditions between bargaining periods, notably including some sizeable demonstrations. The conjunction of this union work with a relatively strong campus left has left a legacy, making the University of Sydney NTEU branch the trendsetter for the whole sector.

Within a few days, more than 300 members of the union around Australia had signed the NTEU Fightback statement along the lines of the University of Sydney censure motion. The statement rejected concessions on wages and conditions and set out an alternative strategy. It demanded firstly that the government fully fund the sector to secure the future of the entire workforce, including casuals, and secondly that the union must fight against any attacks on jobs, wages or conditions. As Torlakovic and Kuhn put it in Red Flag in April, “There is only one way for NTEU members to draw a line: by voting down any attacks on conditions and ultimately backing that up with an industrial campaign. Such a campaign could reverse the appalling message national NTEU leaders have sent to university bosses and the government – that we are a pushover”.[19]

In response to the spectre of collaboration and concessions, thousands of members engaged with the union in unprecedented ways. Overwhelming majorities at mass branch meetings at Sydney, RMIT and La Trobe universities passed motions against concessions, despite officials attempting to undemocratically squash them. At Sydney University, a second mass meeting was called and a large majority of the 250 members who attended reaffirmed their opposition. At La Trobe, which does not have a reputation as a highly engaged, independent branch, the leadership attempted to stop a vote being held. Undeterred, the members held a second meeting the following day in which the “no concessions” motion was passed 71 to five. Significant opposition to the union leaders’ proposals was quickly registered at members’ meetings at Monash University, Flinders University and UNSW. Casuals’ networks and some branch committees also passed motions of opposition in the first few weeks.[20]

The revolt against union officials’ attempts to stifle debate further galvanised new activists. At RMIT University, the branch experienced a Spartacus moment. A meeting on 15 May maxed out its Zoom capacity of 400, its largest ever branch meeting. After a lengthy defence of the union’s strategy from an official and a much shorter rebuttal by NTEU Fightback activist and Socialist Alternative member Liam Ward, union officials tried to stop a vote. Sick of being talked at, and sick of being ignored by the officials, members suddenly began to unmute themselves to vote, declaring “I support Liam” one after the other. Hundreds of individual members voting in this way decided the matter and sent a clear message to the union leaders present.[21]

After a month of closed-door negotiations, union members were finally informed of the deal’s substance in mid-April, with full details not available until mid-May. The framework would allow university bosses to impose pay cuts of up to 15 percent. When the officials refused to accept that this figure was accurate, NTEU Fightback’s daily emails and Facebook posts provided the proof, right down to the arithmetic. For someone on the median female wage of $65,000, the NTEU officials’ deal would mean a pay cut of up to $375 a fortnight. These cuts would have been – and still will be where the zombie framework is implemented at a local level – the biggest wage cut in the sector in living memory. For tens of thousands of workers struggling to survive in a new global depression, these cuts would be life-changing. Many university bosses cynically distanced themselves from this staggering figure, appearing magnanimous by simply asking staff not to take scheduled pay rises. This is a disastrous position for the union to have put itself in.

For activists in the NTEU Fightback group, as well as providing the facts of the officials’ sell-out deal, this was a tremendous opportunity to play a role in every area of organising. The solid majorities against the framework at the union’s largest branches, Sydney, RMIT and Melbourne, came about because of the detailed groundwork undertaken by Socialist Alternative members and others in the NTEU Fightback campaign. Local area meetings, many in faculties and divisions that had not held union meetings in decades, allowed rank and file members to analyse the framework and hear the NTEU Fightback critique, and discuss an alternative strategy based on class struggle. Where Socialist Alternative does not have a presence, our activists backed the efforts of others to organise, zooming into member meetings, advising militants, writing documents for their benefit. Ultimately 1,300 union members signed up to campaign for a No vote against the proposed deal. These activists received a regular bulletin from NTEU Fightback, filled with arguments, anecdotes and facts needed to win the debate at a grassroots level.

In response to this unprecedented opposition from members, the NTEU leadership resorted to undemocratic measures. At meetings around the country, members were prevented from putting motions or amendments, calling for debate or even speaking. The chat function in Zoom was often disabled and all sorts of bureaucratic arguments were used to stop members from exercising what should be a basic right for a union member – talking about and voting on industrial strategy in their branch.

A hastily called “meeting of national councillors” rammed through a vote backing the national executive’s strategy of collaborating with management by a vote of 89 to 13. This was then touted as a vote of confidence in the strategy. As Socialist Alternative member of NTEU national council Katie Wood wrote:

Before the vote, about which we had only just been informed, we were shown a professionally produced video that announced, “national councillors have voted”. The mover of the leadership’s motion proclaimed this the most important decision in the history of the union – yet the meeting of 100-odd was given 20 minutes to debate it.[22]

The national leadership also instructed its paid staff to block the distribution of vote No material and told branch presidents to clamp down on dissent. The national executive used the circular argument that the framework was official union policy because they and two meetings of national councillors had already voted for it. Yet at that point members had yet to even have the chance to vote on the JPF in a membership ballot. These tactics fuelled anger among members, but also confidence, knowing that the leadership could not win the argument in a fair and open contest.[23]

Union members at the University of New England (UNE) were among the first to campaign to vote No to the framework, having had very recent experience of the national executive pushing through a deal with management which contradicted members’ interests and their express wishes, in their last enterprise agreement negotiations. As Tim Battin, a member of the union branch committee at UNE, explained:

The NTEU national and state officers wore the members down by spooking them about UNE management’s supposed intention to terminate the agreement. It should be said that at no stage did management ever use those words to us, the local reps. Once the deal was made, the NTEU state and national officers sent “vote yes” emails that looked like they came from the branch. The branch had to rely on sending its own emails to urge members to vote no. The branch organiser was told not to send emails that contradicted the national and state position.[24]

The framework was withdrawn on 26 May. This was a vindication of all the rank and file NTEU activists across the country who organised themselves in their workplaces to oppose it. Branch after branch had rejected the framework. Even on the day of its demise, meetings of hundreds at the Australian National University and Monash University passed motions of opposition.

But none of that was automatic, indeed it was unprecedented. The work of the NTEU Fightback campaign, and of the Socialist Alternative members within it, was essential in achieving this result. Pushing ahead with the vital work of contacting union members across the country, winning the arguments to oppose the officials’ sell-out, finding the next person who could be convinced to stand up at a union meeting and argue against the framework, endless debates, arranging meetings on campus after campus, were the essential rank and file organising without which opposition to the framework would have remained isolated, a source of discontent amongst like-minded friends.

Instead, the campaign against the framework energised an activist minority of members of the union in an unprecedented way. That puts union activists in a position to resist the further attacks on jobs or conditions already on their way. And it raises a different idea of what a union should be – one that stands up for its members and refuses to accept that workers should bear the cost of this historic crisis. The campaign to vote No was not just some exercise in “getting the vote out” as some sectarian naysayers have argued. Convincing members to vote No required an activist orientation to build strength on the ground. Unfortunately, the potential of this kind of momentum is still being ignored by the official structures of the union as they pursue the concessional bargaining of the national framework at a local level.[25]

Socialists in the NTEU

The fight within the NTEU posed the question of how socialists should respond to a union sell-out in a very concrete way. It was not enough to mouth support for the idea of rank and file activity: individual socialist activists and members of socialist organisations had to put forward serious arguments for how to develop an independent approach to the NTEU national leadership. Unfortunately most of the socialist left in the NTEU failed to do this, which meant they had no principled answer to the officials’ sell-out.

The worst were those socialists who had become part of the leadership of the NTEU itself. They included Damien Cahill, assistant secretary of the New South Wales Division, NSW state secretary Michael Thomson, and Alison Barnes, the NTEU national president. Compared to other NTEU officials, their personal histories and writings seem to mark them out as leftists but their practice today is very different.

In his youth Cahill was the editor of the University of Wollongong student newspaper and used the paper to promote a revival of student protest and activism. As an academic Cahill has spent years writing and researching neoliberalism: his staff biography on the University of Sydney website states that he “is particularly interested in the relationship between neoliberal theory and practice, reasons for the durability of neoliberalism, and the ways it is being re-shaped by crisis”. However, faced by the implementation of neoliberalism in the universities, Cahill only waved it through in the form of the JPF.

Thomson is a former member and close collaborator of the socialist group Solidarity. In recent years he has worked with the NTEU national leadership to stifle rank and file activity. Just last year he was a key player in the disgraceful betrayal of staff at the University of New England, where he helped impose a nationally negotiated enterprise agreement in the teeth of opposition from rank and file members and the elected branch committee.[26]

Barnes was in the 1990s a member of the International Socialist Organisation. Today, she has been campaigning across the country and throughout the national media for the framework deal with the university bosses, of which she was the key architect. Any left credentials Barnes might have were put to use to more effectively sell the deal, which she characterised as an intervention by the union “to put income security and fairness at the centre of a national response” to COVID-19.[27] No mention in any of her public pronouncements that the deal included wage cuts of up to 15 percent.

As this indicates, the response of these leftists to the current university crisis was indistinguishable from the rest of the union leadership. They have all argued that making concessions to the VCs is the only way to get them to agree to reduce the number of planned redundancies. The idea of fighting them was never mentioned. Instead, the seat at the negotiating table is everything. As Alison Barnes wrote on the NTEU website on 20 May: “But the kicker in the framework is that staff play a central role in crafting and implementing it”.[28]

The role of socialists in this situation had to be to help lead and organise the rank and file to stand on their own feet and defend themselves. When union officials work with bosses to attack their own members, it should be straightforward for socialists that you have to take on the officials, too. From 8 April Red Flag argued that:

[T]o really protect job security in universities, we need: Government funding and use of universities’ reserves and credit facilities to sustain jobs, and the quality of education, with no strings attached. Full transparency about negotiations between NTEU officials, bosses and the government. Mass online meetings, with scope for debate, to assess the progress of negotiations and to vote on any proposed national agreement. A national campaign, including the possibility of industrial action around our demands on government and university managements.[29]

This strategy was met with significant opposition from the two other organised socialist groups in the NTEU, Socialist Alliance and Solidarity. Throughout the course of the campaign it became obvious that Socialist Alliance and Solidarity had developed substantially different and counterposed strategies for union work to those argued for by Socialist Alternative.

Instead of trying to cohere, deepen and lead the rank and file anger to the NTEU leadership, Socialist Alliance and Solidarity gave the NTEU bureaucrats left cover. That is, at a time when absolute clarity was needed on the lines of division within the union – between those campaigning to push through a wage-cutting deal and those opposing it – they constantly blurred that divide, taking the heat off the officials.

So, for example, Socialist Alliance, whose members include the presidents of the James Cook University and Charles Sturt University NTEU branches, fudged these lines of division in their first Green Left Weekly (GLW) article about the fight within the NTEU. As debate raged in the union, GLW published an article on 21 April entitled “University unionists call for unity in debate over directions”. Members at Sydney University had already rejected the idea of trading off wages and conditions by 117 to 2, and three branches of the union had already passed motions censuring the national executive. The moment required that the left strongly back those organising opposition to the officials’ sell-out. GLW however simply argued lamely: “NTEU members differ on how best to fight in this situation. They are united in wanting to campaign to win public emergency and long-term higher education funding and opposition to unilateral cuts by management”.[30]

Very briefly, in mid-May, more than a month after the campaign kicked off, GLW struck a more oppositional tone, publishing two articles attacking the deal and calling for a No vote. But this approach was short-lived. On 28 May, once the framework was defeated, GLW returned to its earlier position, trying to give the best possible gloss to the leaders who had tried to foist wage cuts on the membership, quoting Barnes’ claim that “The NTEU will now escalate to what will be historically high levels of industrial disputation”.[31] This statement was nothing but hot air, a manoeuvre by the officials who, recognising the blow to their credibility with activist members of the union as a result of their support for the JPF, tried to turn on some militant rhetoric. GLW, however, simply published the statement as good coin.

Solidarity, a small socialist group primarily based in Sydney, also weakened the campaign through their destructive intervention. While Solidarity members do not currently occupy full-time official positions within the union, the group has worked closely with Thomson for many years, producing a serious softness within their organisation towards him and other NTEU officials.

Very early in the campaign it became clear that the question of voting No to pay cuts and reduced conditions was central to building a fightback. The left officials were quite prepared to denounce the Morrison government’s refusal to fund higher education properly, as they were the vice-chancellors’ announcements of redundancies. The officials explained at great length the damage that years of bipartisan neoliberal policies had done to the university sector. But one thing they could not tolerate was the demand that members vote No to their wage-cutting deal.

Solidarity only helped to muddy the waters in this respect. At organising meetings, they were for anything but exposing the clearly counterposed positions of the rank and file militants and the left-talking officials. In the name of “unity” with the officials trying to cut members’ wages, their members refused to make “vote No” the central demand of the campaign. At a National Higher Education Action Network meeting on 8 May, UTS staff member Paddy Gibson, a member of Solidarity, baldly stated “I’m not going to hand out leaflets outside UTS saying vote against our national officials”. Solidarity members tried to caricature the “vote No” campaign by saying that that its proponents had no plans for anything else, that it was a diversion, or that the ballot was only a rumour. This was mere cover for their refusal to condemn the leadership, which they are personally and politically close to.

This approach has continued. More recently at UTS Solidarity members opposed a motion calling for “no concessions”, instead supporting a motion from the branch officials that both sets the framework for concessional bargaining, and enables management to force workers to take accumulated leave. This prelude to mass sackings was described as “an incredibly minor agreement variation”.[32]

In place of a solid “vote No” campaign against the framework, Solidarity preferred to prioritise a National Day of Action (NDA) that had the support of the same officials pushing the JPF. Wherever they existed Solidarity argued that this stunt – rather than the vote No campaign – should be the focus for NTEU activists. Their main concern was to win the union leadership’s endorsement of the NDA, and so they were initially opposed to including “vote No” materials and slogans for the day. They boasted of their private overtures to the left officials, that they were winning them over to the idea. But they were pushing at an open door. The national executive grasped the NDA with both hands since they understood that it would be a great opportunity to give themselves the appearance of fighting the cuts while at the same time implementing them. They put on a big promotion campaign for the NDA, proclaiming the day as “Epic!” In reality, the NDA passed most members by, but the left officials threw themselves into it. Cahill and Thomson took a break from ramming through a 15 percent wage cut to join the car convoy in Sydney, while Barnes took part in a national livestream alongside university managers in which she argued for the framework to an audience of hundreds.

Under pressure from the rank and file rebellion and left-wing criticism, Solidarity modified their approach late in the campaign, acting as if they had never argued against a “vote No” campaign. Yet as late as 23 May at a Sydney University staff and student meeting, they were still complaining in the Zoom chat that demanding the campaign be centred on voting No to the sell-out deal was “disrupting the ability of rank and file activists and union officials to work together”.

For many years the retreat of the union movement and the small size of the socialist left meant socialists had few opportunities to lead rank and file work. As union milieus shrank, sections of the socialist left have become increasingly close to left-talking union officials, who tend to be happy to sign endorsement letters and speak at rallies rather than defending their members’ interests. While some of this collaboration is of course necessary, many on the left have gradually adjusted their approach to the bureaucracy, accommodating to their conservatism. The rank and file revolt in the NTEU exposes this long term tendency, and marks a qualitative break in the behaviour of the socialists groups mentioned above.

Arguing for unionists to resist all forms of class collaboration and understanding the role of trade union officials who promote it are key issues for the left. These arguments echo an older debate among socialists. Historically, many socialists have veered between two wrong positions. A small number have simply written off the left officials and refused to work with them and the unions more broadly on principle, because of their record of selling out rank and file members. This is a mistake. Even the most despicable union boss can on occasions lead actions that have the potential to build rank and file power and organisation. Much more common, however, is the approach of just tailing behind them, apologising for and covering up their betrayals. The rationale for this approach is that by developing close relationships with individuals in positions of influence – and perhaps even taking those positions themselves – socialists can impact the broader class struggle more effectively. Yet maintaining a permanent alliance with reformist officials – particularly in the current era – requires unconscionable compromises. Partly this is because there are no left officials in the way that the distinction was once understood, but even in the glory days of unionism the left officials always proved to be ultimately more loyal to the rest of the union machinery and the employers than to the workers. The best approach was summarised by union delegates in Scotland’s industrial heartlands back in 1915: “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately if they misrepresent them”.[33]

Why has the socialist left in Australia developed very different strategies? This question can’t be disentangled from the broader context in which the left has had to operate over the last couple of decades. It has been a difficult period. The workers’ movement has been in retreat, and outside of occasional outbursts, street protests and social movements have also been limited. The scope for socialists to connect their ideas of working-class self-activity and militancy to sections of organised workers has been extremely limited, a situation reinforced by the small size of the socialist left. In related but different ways Socialist Alliance and Solidarity have adapted to a significant degree to this period of working-class weakness. For the Alliance this has been most clear in regard to the watering down of their politics into electoral work that has at any rate produced few gains, and their adaptations to various fads on the international left: broad parties, identity politics, reformism and so on.[34] For Solidarity it has been expressed by their conservative attitude to the Labor Party and the Greens and their conservative approach to work in the refugee movement. Most spectacularly, Solidarity have recently opposed calls to stop Adani or for an immediate end to fossil fuels, insisting that these left-wing slogans undermine the potential for union action around climate change.[35]

In the NTEU, both groups have developed cosy relationships towards left-sounding trade union officials for a variety of reasons. In a flat political and industrial climate, it often appeared as if the only work you could do within the union movement were campaigns in collaboration with union officialdom. This is an objectively difficult situation, however the Alliance and Solidarity approach has simply built illusions in the union bureaucracy. One example of this has been their trumpeting of union officials that have been willing to pass motions or speak at rallies around refugee rights, the environment and LGBTI issues. The mistake isn’t in asking them to do this, or in passing motions in union meetings on broader political issues. The issue is not being clear on how such activities provide cover for officials, giving the impression that they are more radical than they really are. The International Socialism journal commented on this phenomenon in the context of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1960s: “Sometimes it is their very distance from their members, their very middle-classness, that makes union officials the more receptive to CND propaganda”.[36]

Instead of trying to create whatever independent space within the unions that is possible, Solidarity and Socialist Alliance have developed a symbiotic relationship with sections of the left trade union bureaucracy. Often this was justified by reference to the divisions between right-wing and left-wing officials, and repetition of the argument that socialists should exploit those divisions to advance working-class struggle. But that was not the question at issue here. The issue confronting union members was officials who claim to be the left acting just as reprehensibly as some of the right-wing unions. As Gluckstein and Cliff put it in their extensive study of socialists and trade union work:

A revolutionary party must know how to exploit the division between left and right bureaucrats, between those who are prepared to make militant speeches (even if they will not act upon them) and those who are openly wedded to conciliation at all times. Through using this division the independence, initiative and self-confidence of the rank and file may be strengthened, on one condition: the party must make clear that the rank and file cannot trust the left officials or put their faith in radical rhetoric… An alliance with left bureaucrats is only a means to broad action… Such an alliance, like every other tactic in the trade union field, must be judged by one criterion, and one criterion only – whether it raises the activity, and hence the confidence and consciousness of the workers.[37]

As we have seen with regard to the NTEU Fightback campaign, the Alliance and Solidarity did not use divisions within the NTEU officials to help build rank and file activity. To the contrary, it was the union officialdom who exploited sections of the socialist left in order to blur the key division in the union between those who wanted to fight, and those who advocated surrender ahead of the battle.

In practice what the Alliance and Solidarity have done is resurrect the old reformist approach to union officialdom that was pursued by Social Democratic and Communist parties for many decades. While they too mouthed support for the idea of rank and file activity they confined their actual intervention to creating left-wing pressure groups on the bureaucracy. These groups were formally separate to the official leadership but politically and strategically subservient to them. Like the Alliance and Solidarity today they constantly pushed the line that united action means downplaying the differences between the union bureaucracy and the rank and file. Solidarity’s criticism that Socialist Alternative’s approach to the NTEU undermined the possibility of united action sounds very similar to former Communist Party of Australia leader Bernie Taft’s criticism that the radical NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation had “a tendency to counterpose the rank and file movement to the trade union officials”.[38]

All of this raises the question of what a rank and file strategy actually means. Today most socialists claim to agree with a rank and file approach to trade union work, interpreted narrowly as a focus on “workplace mapping” paired with some on the ground organising. Grassroots organising is of course the basis of good unionism, however it is not in and of itself a rank and file strategy. Trade union officials can engage in on the ground organising if they want to break into a new industry or wish to shore up their current membership. Even right-wing organisations such as the Catholic-dominated Industrial Groups of the 1950s used grassroots organising in the unions in order to fight against the influence of the Communist Party and the left. A rank and file strategy is one that builds on democratic grassroots organising combined with a political and strategic independence from union officialdom and their pro-capitalist ideologies. This means fighting to deepen the understanding of rank and file activists that the strategies of union officials will end in defeat, that they have different interests from the mass of ordinary workers, that it is through industrial struggle that workers have their greatest strength, and that it is in the interests of rank and file workers to fight around broader political issues.

In our own modest way this is what Socialist Alternative has tried to do wherever we can. We face, of course, the same difficult objective conditions referenced earlier. But instead of sucking up to union officials and other reformist institutions as a shortcut to mass influence, we have pursued a more modest, but more politically serious response. For example, when COVID-19 hit, members of Socialist Alternative organised a campaign within English-language schools that defeated managements’ attempts to impose a 15 percent pay cut.[39] In 2016 members of Socialist Alternative working at the Polar Fresh warehouse played a leading role in a significant three-day strike involving hundreds of workers.[40] You could add to this dozens more examples of smaller workplace-based actions organised or supported by our members. Much of this activity has been modest in scale and none of it is anywhere near enough to turn the tide in the class struggle, but the experience means we can be confident that an alternative strategy to class collaboration and concession bargaining is viable. We have been prepared to work with trade union officials on joint campaigns where possible, for instance with the National Union of Workers during the pickets at the Baiada chicken factory in 2011 and at the Chemist Warehouse strikes last year, while aware of the difficulties in maintaining independent and critical assessments of their approach to the fights at hand.

As a national rank and file rebellion, NTEU Fightback was on a very different scale to anything previously attempted. It was only made possible because we had built up an organisation of over 400 socialist activists over the last two decades, primarily but not exclusively recruited from the university campuses.

The rebuilding of a serious rank and file current is then bound up in the broader reconstruction of a revolutionary socialist left in Australia. Historically the revivals in rank and file trade union activity have always been intertwined with broader radicalisation and the expansion of the socialist left. As we enter into a period of greater political and economic turmoil in the wake of COVID-19, strengthening the forces of revolutionary socialism is vital to rebuilding the possibilities of rank and file militant action. This is all the more important when union officialdom is so acquiescent in the face of attacks from bosses and the government.

Analysing the conflicting arguments and positions of different groups of socialists towards union officials in the NTEU is not, therefore, an arcane theoretical or sectarian exercise. Sectarianism is about putting the organisation ahead of the movement, but in this case there would have been no movement whatsoever had the approach of the rest of the left been adopted. As in so many cases, it was the revolutionary politics of the comrades at the heart of NTEU Fightback that made the movement possible to begin with, and seeking clarity on these questions is in the interests of all involved.

Future challenges

While the JPF was defeated at a national level, the sector remains mired in a profound and long-term crisis. The argument for concession bargaining therefore has not and will not recede. While the national organising against the framework allowed a militant minority to put political pressure on union leaders, the balance of forces is far less favourable at a local level.

At the only three campuses where VCs signed up to the framework – UWA, La Trobe and Monash – the NTEU leadership have continued to push ahead with their deal. They have won votes to do so on all three campuses, resulting in big wage cuts, compulsory taking of annual leave and the gutting of major change clauses in enterprise agreements, which gives the green light to further attacks.[41] Unfortunately the active and more left-wing minority who had been voting solidly against the framework in numerous meetings did not have the time and capacity to convince the broader majority on these campuses. But even where universities have not signed up to the JPF, the union’s announcement in April of their pre-emptive surrender has given vice-chancellors the go-ahead to implement savage attacks, in particular against those whose employment was already precarious. Universities everywhere have sacked casual staff in their thousands, and refused to extend fixed-term contracts. La Trobe University vice-chancellor John Dewar boasted that $7 million had been saved at his institution by cutting casual jobs.[42]

Bosses at Melbourne University, one of the wealthiest institutions in Australia, were the first outside the three JPF campuses to try to exploit the weakness shown by the NTEU officials’ offer of concessions, demanding to take back a 2.2 percent pay rise from their employees and worsen redundancy conditions. They were defeated by an incredible burst of worker organising. Over ten days, more than 1,700 workers attended 18 meetings in their local work areas to discuss management’s attack and the union’s response. As Katie Wood, who played a leading role in this, wrote:

Management at one of the wealthiest and most powerful institutions in the country was defeated by systematic worker organisation. This kind of organising drive has no parallel in recent years either at Melbourne University or in higher education more broadly. It’s a welcome shift from the dominant approach of unions in Australia, and the national leadership of the NTEU in particular, who have expressed a deep pessimism about the ability to organise workers in the workplace in order to resist – and used that pessimistic outlook as a justification for signing terrible, wage-cutting deals with management at many campuses. The fantastic burst of organising at the University of Melbourne is exactly the antidote required. One example among many: in Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, 45 people attended the first union meeting in living memory in the faculty, with 76 Zooming in for a second meeting before the vote.

Of 8,069 staff who voted, 5,190 – an incredible 64 percent – voted No.[43]

This massive victory, underpinned by a surge in grassroots organising, was kicked off with minimal support from the state or national offices of the union. It speaks volumes about the priorities of the union office that more resources were being put into selling a union-negotiated variation of the national framework at La Trobe than into resisting an employer-sponsored attack at Melbourne. The only serious intervention of the national leadership into the early part of the campaign was an email from the national secretary to all members, which chose to re-prosecute the arguments for the wage-cutting national framework and the importance of a Yes vote at La Trobe! Additional resources were eventually allocated for the last few days of phone-banking, but the victory belongs to the branch delegates and activists, not to the architects of the framework.[44]

This was an extremely significant result. It sent a message to higher education workers everywhere that it was possible to defeat employer-sponsored attacks on wages and conditions and encouraged them to continue to resist. But so far it has been an isolated success for rank and file organising. Western Sydney University and the University of Tasmania have seen union-management schemes which reduce staff pay voted into being.[45] Everywhere the union machine continues to push concessions rather than oppose them. Even in her (very muted) response to the Melbourne Uni victory, NTEU national president Alison Barnes sought to foist the framework back on the Melbourne University branch, pleading with management: “We have negotiated a framework which allows for temporary pay reductions to save jobs, provided vice chancellors are transparent about their finances and open to co-operative negotiation”.[46] Rather than taking the victory at Melbourne Uni as an indication that workers can fight off concessions through a rank and file organising effort, the national officials took it as an opportunity to advertise their openness to concessions so long as they are involved in negotiating them. Worst of all, the non-union ballot was offering only to withdraw the 2.2 percent wage rise, rather than offering a 15 percent pay cut – workers were objectively better off with a non-union ballot than a union one!

The situation remains a difficult one. As NTEU Fightback argued from the outset, the framework did nothing to save jobs. Already among the campuses that endorsed it, Monash is slashing 277 jobs and La Trobe, despite staff voting to support a 10 percent wage cut under the framework, has announced there will be between 215 and 415 redundancies. The NTEU’s offer of the framework at UNSW merely emboldened management to unilaterally announce 493 redundancies. While the stunning success of the rank and file organising effort at Melbourne University has not been replicated elsewhere, there are other campuses like the University of Wollongong where the union managed to defeat a management-initiated ballot. The downside to 62 percent opposing the employer’s attack is that the officials immediately reiterated their only objection to concessions – that they want to be involved in devising them. In mid-July their wish came true: 84 percent of union members voted in favour of an NTEU-brokered wage cut via the deferral of two pay rises until 2022, no pay rises upon promotion, and agreement to undertake different work at management’s direction. All this for the most tepid management commitment of all the miserable unenforceable promises to date: “no forced redundancies directly due to COVID-19” before 20 April 2021.[47] As the combined efforts of the NTEU machine and ACTU call centre resources to get a Yes vote to wage cuts and other concessions at the three framework campuses showed, there are forces other than the bosses arrayed against the rank and file. The forces of resistance are small and scattered, so we have an uphill battle ahead; but the NTEU Fightback slogan “Vote No and keep organising” is the only way forward.


The argument that workers’ interests can best be protected by collaborating with bosses will not be confined to the NTEU. Clarifying the approach socialists should take to union officials is absolutely necessary if we are going to build the fightback we need. Capitalism is now in a long-term, structural crisis, which will result in wave after wave of attacks on workers in every sector. Organising to rebuild a class-struggle current in our unions has never been more urgent.

In fighting attempts to gut their jobs, pay and conditions, university workers are doing more than standing up for their individual rights. They can begin to provide a lead to the broader union movement, making an argument that can inspire others to refuse to make sacrifices for the sake of bosses’ profit margins. Some supporters of the NTEU officials have made the all too familiar argument that university workers must sacrifice to avoid alienating workers who don’t have the conditions they enjoy. But what of the tens of thousands of families and dependents who rely on the incomes of university workers, many of them on already low wages? Far from alienating other workers, a serious campaign to defend NTEU members’ existing wages and conditions can show others how to fight for their own.

Unfortunately, workers have to be prepared to wage this fight against not just the bosses and the government, but our union leaders too. Yet there are many allies who would be ready to assist if called upon. Students in Australia and around the world have proven to be key allies of university staff. The successful student-staff campaign to defeat university deregulation under former prime minister Tony Abbott showed that this alliance can cause a crisis for elites and win support from the wider public. If matched with widespread industrial action, who knows what could be won. Building a network of grassroots militants around NTEU Fightback – and the Socialist Alternative caucus that is at its core – is the necessary first step in that direction.


An IH teacher 2020, “English teachers defeat bosses’ attacks in pandemic”, Red Flag, 9 April. https://redflag.org.au/node/7121.

Barnes, Alison 2020, “Job-saving deal will give university workforce a say in their future”, NTEU website, 20 May. https://www.nteu.org.au/article/Job-saving-deal-will-give-university-workforce-a-say-in-their-future-22060.

Barrigos, Rebecca 2013, “The neoliberal transformation of higher education”, Marxist Left Review, 6, Winter. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/the-neoliberal-transformation-of-higher-education/.

Battin, Tim and Alex Macaulay 2020, “How the NTEU’s national leadership made a bad deal at UNE”, Red Flag, 18 May. https://redflag.org.au/node/7189.

Bramble, Tom 2018, “Our unions in crisis: How did it come to this?”, Marxist Left Review, 15, Summer. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/our-unions-in-crisis-how-did-it-come-to-this/.

Campus Morning Mail, “Worked-out in Wollongong”, 17 July. https://campusmorningmail.com.au/news/worked-out-in-wollongong/.

Cliff, Tony and Donny Gluckstein 1986, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle – The General Strike of 1926, chapter 2. https://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1986/tradeunion/ch02.htm#d18.

Duffy, Connor 2020, “Government announces coronavirus relief package for higher education with focus on domestic students”, ABC, 12 April. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-12/government-announces-coronavirus-higher-education-relief-package/12142752.

Evans, Michael 2020, “Media Release: Uni of Melbourne staff reject unfair offer”, NTEU, 11 June. https://www.nteu.org.au/article/Media-Release%3A-Uni-of-Melbourne-staff-reject-unfair-offer-22111.

Ferguson, Hazel and Henry Sherrell 2019, “Overseas students in Australian higher education: a quick guide”, 20 June. https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1819/Quick_Guides/OverseasStudents.

Fieldes, Diane 2020, “The university pay cut deal is defeated. It’s a win for rank and file activism”, Red Flag, 26 May. https://redflag.org.au/node/7199.

Fredman, Nick, Pip Hinman and Susan Price 2013, “Revolutionary unity to meet the capitalist crisis”, Marxist Left Review, 6, Winter. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/revolutionary-unity-to-meet-the-capitalist-crisis/.

Hassan, Omar 2020, “No excuses – we have to shut down the fossil fuel industry”, Red Flag, 14 February. https://redflag.org.au/node/7022.

Hinton, James 1973, The First Shop Stewards’ Movement, George Allen and Unwin.

Hurley, Peter 2020, “Australian universities could lose $19 billion in the next 3 years. Our economy will suffer with them”, The Conversation, 17 April. https://theconversation.com/australian-universities-could-lose-19-billion-in-the-next-3-years-our-economy-will-suffer-with-them-136251.

International Socialism 1960, “Editorial: A Blow Against the Boss is a Blow Against the Bomb”, International Socialism, 2, Autumn. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj/1960/isj002/editorial1.htm.

Kuhn, Rick and Jack Hynes 2020, “Why the university workers’ fight matters”, Red Flag, 8 May. https://redflag.org.au/node/7170.

Long, Colin 2018, “Casualisation of university workforce is a national disgrace”, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 August. https://www.smh.com.au/education/casualisation-of-university-workforce-is-a-national-disgrace-20180803-p4zvcm.html.

Macaulay, Alex and Tim Battin 2020, “How the NTEU’s national leadership made a bad deal at UNE”, Red Flag, 18 May, https://redflag.org.au/node/7189.

Marin-Guzman, David 2020, “Unions at war over deal to cut pay at universities”, Australian Financial Review, 13 May. https://www.afr.com/work-and-careers/workplace/union-blue-over-nteu-deal-to-cut-pay-at-universities-20200513-p54sfz.

McManus, Sally 2020, on ABC Insiders, 5 April. https://www.abc.net.au/insiders/sally-mcmanus-joins-insiders/12123084.

Morrison, Scott 2020, press conference, 2 April. https://www.pm.gov.au/media/press-conference-australian-parliament-house-act-020420.

NTEU Fightback – No Concessions Facebook page 2020. https://www.facebook.com/NTEUfightback.

NTEU Fightback 2020, http://nteufightback.site/.

O’Brien, John 2015, National Tertiary Education Union. A most unlikely union (UNSW Press).

O’Shea, Louise 2020, “Beware union leaders bearing deals”, Red Flag, 10 June. https://redflag.org.au/node/7224.

Oakley, Corey 2013, “What kind of organisation do socialists need?”, Marxist Left Review, 6, Summer, https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/what-kind-of-organisation-do-socialists-need/.

Price, Susan 2020, “After debate, NTEU commits to an industrial fight for jobs”, Green Left Weekly, 28 May. https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/after-debate-nteu-commits-industrial-fight-jobs.

Rose, Cat 2020, “Fight continues at UTS – despite union leadership”, Red Flag, 19 July. https://redflag.org.au/node/7269.

Ross, John 2020, “Cut pay for the greater good, Australian academics asked”, Times Higher Education, 17 April. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/cut-pay-greater-good-australian-academics-asked.

Small, Jerome 2016, “‘Thirty bucks, no trucks!’ Warehouse workers strike back against Coles”, Red Flag, 31 July. https://redflag.org.au/node/5410.

Solidarity 2020, “Editorial: Election shock – but Morrison can be fought,” Solidarity, 27 May, https://www.solidarity.net.au/mag/back/2019/126/editorial-election-shock-but-morrison-can-be-fought/.

Strauss, Jonathan 2020, “University unionists call for unity in debate over directions”, Green Left Weekly, 21 April. https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/university-unionists-call-unity-debate-over-directions.

Taylor, Daniel 2020, “‘Returning to normal’ means launching new attacks”, Red Flag, 12 May. https://redflag.org.au/node/7178.

Tehan, Dan 2020, press conference, 12 April. https://ministers.dese.gov.au/tehan/minister-education-dan-tehan-and-chief-medical-officer-professor-brendan-murphy-press.

Torlakovic, Alma and Rick Kuhn 2020a, “University workers must not accept wage cuts in exchange for ‘job security’”, Red Flag, 8 April. https://redflag.org.au/node/7119.

Torlakovic, Alma and Rick Kuhn 2020b, “University workers prepare to fight union over concessions”, Red Flag, 13 April. https://redflag.org.au/node/7128.

Vassiley, Alexis and Kaye Broadbent 2020, “Universities are cutting hundreds of jobs – they, and the government, can do better”, The Conversation, 16 July. https://theconversation.com/universities-are-cutting-hundreds-of-jobs-they-and-the-government-can-do-better-142824.

Wood, Katie and Alma Torlakovic 2020, “The rank and file uprising in Australia’s higher education union”, Red Flag, 26 May. https://redflag.org.au/node/7198.

Wood, Katie 2020a, “University workers revolt against union concession plan”, Red Flag, 25 April, https://redflag.org.au/node/7149.

Wood, Katie 2020b, “Worker organising defeats management at Melbourne Uni”, Red Flag, 11 June. https://redflag.org.au/node/7227.

[1] Hurley 2020.

[2] Barrigos 2013, Kuhn and Hynes 2020, Long 2018.

[3] Torlakovic and Kuhn 2020a.

[4] Tehan 2020.

[5] Bramble 2018.

[6] Wood and Torlakovic 2020.

[7] O’Brien 2015.

[8] Ferguson and Sherrell, 2019.

[9] Taylor 2020.

[10] Duffy 2020.

[11] Ross 2020.

[12] Morrison 2020.

[13] McManus 2020.

[14] Bramble 2018, O’Shea 2020.

[15] Wood 2020a.

[16] Cliff and Gluckstein 1986.

[17] Torlakovic and Kuhn 2020a.

[18] NTEU Fightback – No Concessions Facebook page; NTEU Fightback website.

[19] Torlakovic and Kuhn 2020b.

[20] Wood 2020a.

[21] Wood and Torlakovic 2020.

[22] Wood 2020a.

[23] Wood and Torlakovic 2020.

[24] Battin and Macaulay 2020.

[25] Wood and Torlakovic 2020.

[26] Battin and Macaulay 2020.

[27] Quoted in Marin-Guzman 2020.

[28] Barnes 2020.

[29] Torlakovic and Kuhn 2020a.

[30] Strauss 2020.

[31] Price 2020.

[32] Rose 2020.

[33] Hinton 1973, p296.

[34] See the debate in the Marxist Left Review between Socialist Alternative and the Socialist Alliance: Oakley 2013, Fredman, Hinman and Price 2013.

[35] See Solidarity 2020 for their position and Hassan 2020 for a critique of Solidarity’s right-wing approach.

[36] International Socialism 1960.

[37] Cliff and Gluckstein 1986. It is worth noting that Solidarity is the official International Socialist Tendency group in Australia and comes from the same political tradition as Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein. This makes the conservative nature of their intervention into the NTEU fightback campaign all the more remarkable.

[38] See Mick Armstrong, “The NSW BLF: The battle to tame the concrete jungle” elsewhere in this issue.

[39] An IH teacher 2020.

[40] Small 2016.

[41] Fieldes 2020; NTEU Fightback 2020.

[42] Vassiley and Broadbent 2020.

[43] Wood 2020b.

[44] Wood 2020b.

[45] NTEU Fightback 2020.

[46] Evans 2020.

[47] Campus Morning Mail 2020.

Socialist trade union strategy in the Bolshevik era

In the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the newly formed Communist International  attempted to develop a revolutionary approach to union work in the West. Mick Armstrong looks at the application of that strategy in Australia and Britain.

Our unions in crisis: how did it come to this?

Tom Bramble, drawing on decades of research and active involvement in the labour movement, argues that 35 years of passivity and class collaboration rather than an emphasis on militant, class struggle unionism is the core reason our unions are in crisis.

The NSW BLF: The battle to tame the concrete jungle

Mick Armstrong recounts the rise and fall of the NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation, and assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the radical left that turned the union into one of the most impressive examples of socialist unionism in history.

The neoliberal transformation of higher education

Rebecca Barrigos explains how both the rise of the modern higher education system and the erosion of free education under the impact of neoliberalism have served capitalism.