NTEU's Problems

NB: I wrote this in Sept 2021. I am posting it in Dec 2021 so I can link to it.

I’ve been reading @drcwatego’s tweets about her leaving the University of Queensland, and the way NTEU handled her situation. It gets mentioned in her article, but the tweets give more details.

I’m pissed off and sad about how the NTEU seems to have handled it. I also see some of the problems NTEU currently has. This is in no way a defence of them, but I guess explains what I see causing the failures. As Dr. Watego says, it’s not just the union that led to her article, but that’s what I want to focus on here, because that is the organisation, I’ve chosen to spend my time working on. And work it needs.

Before I get into it, about me: I’m a Vice President (General Staff) for the Deakin University branch of the NTEU. I have been for the last four months, and I have been on the branch committee for about the last three and a half years. I have been on National Council for around a year now. In my time on branch committee, I have seen the university go through a quiet period, and then the COVID period. Deakin University is currently in its second round of restructures. The first-round cut ~450 staff and thousands of casuals. We took Deakin to fair work because of the way they were doing this (and partially won). Now in round two, they expect 180 – 220 redundancies (and casual staff are not known yet). So, we’ve been dealing with NTEU quite a bit and fighting as much as we can. We are not the biggest branch, but we’re not the smallest. We do what we can for our members, but of course, there’s never enough hours in the day. Everyone has day jobs, of course. Per the EBA, we get .5 of a full-time equivalent role covered, but much more work is needed (most of the work seems to be done by our President and Secretary).

I work in our IT department as a SysAdmin. That means I’m not an academic, and not a writer. Please forgive any bad English, etc.

OK, onto the meat of it. From Dr. Watego’s description, she contacted the NTEU about the issue when it was with Queensland Industrial Relations Commission (QIRC). They engaged with her about it and were involved for over a year. At some point they seemed to think they wouldn’t get a win, so they stopped supporting her. This (among other things) leads to her withdrawing her complaint and leaving her role at the University. She also says that NTEU didn’t chase up witness statements/other evidence while they were helping her.

NTEU as an organisation has three levels: national (the highest level), division (generally state level) and the branches (generally each university is its own branch). They cover everyone who works at the university who is not a contractor from another company. This means it covers academics, research staff, professional staff, etc., but it does not cover things like security or cleaners. Employment level (casuals –> continuing) are covered. Branches have branch committees, made up of the university’s staff, voted in by the members. Each branch generally gets at least one NTEU staff member (an organiser), although larger branchers might have multiple NTEU staff members (organisers or industrial organisers). Those staff are managed by the division (the state-level grouping of the NTEU), and are there to help the branch committees do what they want to do, as well as help existing members, help get new members, etc. Standard union stuff.

What this means is there’s a large breadth of issues that NTEU tries to cover. Some things, like casualisation and workloads, affects all areas of the University, but there’s plenty that only affects a single cohort of people. With COVID and restructures and so much going on, this causes a strain on (people) resources to do the job. Of course, members will have varying opinions on how things should be handled. Some will be more conservative on how to handle things, and others won’t. An example of this was when I tried to raise a motion about a non-union issue (Palestine). but some members spoke out saying it “wasn’t union business”. This leads to divisions within a branch. Also, everyone by default will worry about their situation more than anyone else's. You have to work and think through why to support others, even if it may disadvantage you in some way, instead of a reactionary “fuck you, got mine”. I am not saying all members think of it in those terms, just that talking to friends (in and out of unions in their workplaces), it's a thing. The fact that some of those people are members is good, because it means they've likely started considering how fighting for others is good. That's a different post, though.

It’s also worth mentioning the NTEU staff members’ mental health. I am not speaking about Deakin, but I’ve heard how isolating (from an organiser in another division) the job can be when you’re the only one assigned to a university. I’ve also heard from a industrial organiser about how goddamn depressing it is to try and help a branch through a round of redundancies. As VP during this round of redundancies at Deakin, I’m experiencing a small part of that, but I feel for the organisers and industrial organisers. Division recently changed the way it was handling industrial organisers, so hopefully this helps our members get faster responses and helps the industrial organisers enjoy their job a bit more.

All this leads to the NTEU having to make choices at every level. Branches make decisions about how to handle stuff/if to pursue stuff/how far to pursue it, division does the same with its staff, and national does overall. We’d love to handle everything all the time, but it sometimes just isn’t possible. As mentioned before the branch committee can only do so much. The more members that get involved and volunteer, or offer to become delegates for their workplaces, the better. Become a delegate, speak to me to find out how :)

Three levels of a union organisation may not sound like much, but it leads to a lot of bureaucracy and bullshit that doesn’t help the people. Plus, there are political factions that have different opinions on how stuff should be handled, etc. I think this would be standard for any union (at least any that’s in the ACTU), but it chews up time and energy on power plays and other crap that doesn’t help our members.

For Dr. Watego’s situation, it sounds like division (talking to national no doubt) decided not to take the case. Maybe they thought they’d burn time on it when they could help a greater number of people otherwise, maybe they thought they’d lose. I don’t know. As I write this, they’ve been quiet, so we may not know anything besides what Dr. Watego says. Going from her description though, this seems like a classic NTEU “conservative” decision that leads to people getting disillusioned with the union.

Last year, when COVID first hit, NTEU national exec came up with a plan to work with the universities to try and curb the number of redundancies and hurt that was caused. It was called the Job Protection Framework, and it failed spectacularly. It may have had some merit, but it was put out to National Council as already negotiated, with no forewarning. It required both branches and university management to sign onto it, and very few did. Those that did survived (somewhat) safely for a year but are now going through a harsh cut like most other universities did last year. Longer term, though, it led to a major distrust of NTEU national from a lot of union members and branches. Regardless of if the JPF was a good thing or a bad thing, the way it was done was a bad thing. National will say it had to act quickly so it had a seat at the table. This may be true. It still could have been handled better instead of trying to slip it through. People left National Council over it.

This isn’t the only time this has happened. Right now, there’s an open letter being presented to NTEU National related to National Council for this year being suspended. The official reason is COVID restrictions, but the open letter argues otherwise.

There now seems to be two factions, the somewhat conservative incumbents, who wants to keep going (of course), and a newer, challenger group, who wants the union to take bigger risks. Both the incumbents and the challengers have their supporters. Personally, I probably align with the challengers more, but not always. In addition, the NTEU is a member of the ACTU, which is heavily ALP aligned. They are not the most “right” member of the ACTU, but still, the ALP is at this point a cheerleader for both neoliberalism and capitalism, and I wonder how much their view filters to the NTEU.

The incumbents have the issue of dealing with money. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. The raw fact is people on continuing roles pay the bulk of the fees, which power the union. This is a problem when 60-80% of the workforce at any given uni is casualised. Insecure work and low pay mean these people, the ones who need the most help, are the ones who can least afford it. So, fighting for them is an obvious choice, but to do that NTEU needs the funds, which means the continuing people roles need to fund fighting for casuals, which means they need to stay in the union. This is where the problem lies. Above, I mentioned how members are generally most concerned about their personal situation. If they feel their problems are not being looked at (because all attention is being put on casuals), they might get upset and leave. It's a delicate balance on a tightrope of razor blades and I don't envy the people who must figure that out. This leads to everyone (branches to national) making decisions that can preference one group over another.

As I mentioned I view national as (currently) somewhat conservative. I think this is what caused bailing on Dr. Watego. I also think this was a mistake. We should, as a union, fight for our most vulnerable. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and more are all major issues in our society, and dropping the case to “save money/time” or “save face” should not be an issue. Minority members are not tokens to be used when it suits us then put back in the box until the next time we're ready. The NTEU may have ultimately lost the case, but at least we'd have the respect to say the NTEU fought for its members.

This applies to a lot of things but doesn't mean that every case should be taken. The person has to be willing to get involved, and they have to have some evidence. In this instance it appears Dr. Watego gave evidence/witness statements/etc., and they were ignored by the NTEU. This isn't on.

The union fights a lot of issues, but I feel its representation of minorities is severely lacking. It probably comes down to the 'cost benefit ratio' of helping these people most times (again, which I generally disagree with), but not always. A transphobe was in charge of the Queer Unionists in Tertiary Education (QUTE) group in the NTEU for the longest time, and thanks to the members' great work, they are finally able to remove that person from a position of leadership. It took a lot though, when it really shouldn't. When the union is willing to let minorities be ignored, it shows our true colours, and discourages keen active potential members from joining.

Finally, I want to talk about staffing. The union doesn't have enough people to do the work that needs to be done, and due to internal issues, it can lead to members being disadvantaged by the union. This is a hard situation, as once again, it comes down to money, however I think there's also a certain level of repair that could be done without spending extra money. Again, a conservative stance seems to prevent this, which just further disillusions keen members. I am not insulting my branch or division or national. There are good and bad people everywhere, and my view may be skewed because I don't have all the facts. That could be handled better, though.

It's interesting the union has strong pockets of rank-and-file support but doesn't have the energy at the upper levels to activate these people. It can happen, though. It happens by supporting people like Dr. Watego. It happens by speaking out for people, even if it doesn't make sense financially. The union could be much stronger in numbers, if not in money (right away). Some would say that leads to destruction, others would say it leads to power.

Every union has issues, and the NTEU has fought a huge battle with COVID and the LNP. I am in no way saying don't support the NTEU. Support them. The good thing about them is they're able to be changed. Join and get involved; that how we fix it.