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In Context: The USU and Open Day Strikes

In Context: The USU and Open Day Strikes


Today at the University of Sydney’s Open Day, the NTEU has taken strike action against the University. They have also voted to take subsequent strike action in a few weeks’ time on September 13.

However, the story of the moment is the USU: the usual suspects if there’s some hot goss on campus (them or the SRC, at least). In response to the proposed strike action, the USU has made a bold and daring decision –

To do nothing.

Well, perhaps that’s not entirely fair, but there’s a lot to unpack in this story so I’d like to split this into a few different questions: ‘why is there strike action?’, ‘why mightn’t the USU be supporting the strike?’ and ‘what is ‘in camera’?’.

Why is there strike action?

Back in 2012/13, there were sustained strikes and protests against the University’s then negotiations of an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement. Back then a lot of the concerns being floated around – of staff redundancies and implementing a ‘research quota’ so that the University could focus on becoming a research hub in the Southern Hemisphere. Y’know… for the prestige.

Protests over negotiations of an EBA in 2013 saw police presence on campus. [Source: Honi Soit]

That EBA covered the years 2013 – 2017. We’re now in 2017, and a new EBA is being drafted.

Reading through Honi Soit¸ who have been providing serialised coverage of this, might be confusing; I know I had some difficulty connecting the dots. Part of this is because the EBA (or at least, the previous one) is a document of some 118 pages. The reason Honi coverage might appear disjointed is because 118 pages is a lot of space to make some cynically capitalist choices to discomfort your staff – and this time around, the University is also pursuing a restructure of its faculties and schools.

Some of the concerns being raised – ‘forced redundancies for staff’, ‘ending discrimination against casual staff in relation to leave and superannuation’, and ‘undermining the teaching-research nexus’ – echo those of 2013. It would seem as if the University doesn’t see itself as a University. Think of it more as a research hub in old sandstone buildings; students are more of a nuisance in the pursuit of shiny, shiny prestige.

Except it is a University. And that’s why there are strikes. So that the University can focus on being a University and teaching students.

Why mightn’t the USU be supporting the strike?

If you were to talk to USU President Courtney Thompson, she might mention that the USU can’t shut down its operations because ‘[the USU’s] financial performance is very important … if we shut down our outlets, we will lose tens of thousands of dollars’.

Which, to be fair, she did say to Honi when asked for comment.

So it’s business as usual for the USU on strike days, because the loss of revenue would unbalance the USU’s ledger and affect ‘clubs and societies… large-scale festivals, an art gallery and several student programs’. Yet the ghosts of board directors past offer a different appraisal of the USU’s financial position. In the comments of the Honi Soit article, Tom Raue stated that the ‘USU has an annual budget of over $20 million’ while Shannen Potter said that ‘the loss [from supporting the strike] would be manageable’.

Now I love what the USU stands for – it’s student run, it’s not for profit, it has those fun geeky societies and I get a free coffee once in a while. But when former board directors – and not even that former, with Potter’s term only having just ended and Raue himself having been involved with the last round of EBA protests – are suggesting the USU’s finances wouldn’t be in serious jeopardy, you have to wonder if the USU’s finances would really be in jeopardy if they just took a Saturday off.

So there’s the financial argument, which sounds a bit hole-y, but this wouldn’t be the first time that the USU has attracted controversy for making business as usual decisions. Last year there was controversy over a potential $50 000 exclusivity contract between the USU and Carlton and United Breweries due to industrial action over the latter’s sacking of 55 staff (with an invitation for those staff to reapply for the chance to win their old jobs back with a 65% wage cut). Reaching further back and Raue himself casts a shadow over an era of protest on USYD’s campus, leaking confidential information to Honi Soit that the University had some degree of collusion with police during the 2013 protests.

In Raue’s case, the act of leaking confidential documents led to a protracted court case filed against him by the USU board of the day. Perhaps it’s seeing non-existent patterns, but it’s possible that this shadow of Raue-era protests looms over the current board’s appeals to the pragmatism of not striking – because it’s not pro-university but a practical choice in the interests of the union. For the moneys.

Yet Thompson also mentioned that the former board held an ‘in camera’ decision to support the strike action. And this brings me to that final question.

What is ‘in camera’?

You’d be forgiven for thinking that ‘in camera’ would refer to Board discussions that took place in front of a camera. When this question was asked of board hopefuls in 2016 (with the victors of that election now sitting on the Board itself), some actually thought this is what ‘in camera’ referred to.

Perhaps it’d be more right to say that ‘in camera’ is a term which ironically means ‘as far away from cameras and the public record as possible’.

So like, the opposite of this. [Source: Man with a Movie Camera]

The original discussion over supporting strike action happened under the previous board term ‘in camera’, which means that we don’t actually have a lot of details on how the conversation unfolded. Thompson notes as well that the question of revisiting the previous board’s decision was raised with the incoming 2017-19 board directors, however they chose to uphold rather than change that earlier decision.

But it’s this use of ‘in camera’ that I find the most interesting. See, if the Board has a conversation ‘in camera’ it means that any outside guests (be they regular students or the media) need to leave the room – meaning that the conversation can’t be scrutinised until the Board makes a public announcement of some kind. It also means that fingers can’t be pointed where finger pointing normally would.

So is it surprising that the USU has found itself in hot water? No, it really isn’t. Yet the reasons why –skirting around the issue of solidarity with strike action – is itself nothing new. The fact that these discussions took place ‘in camera’ in the first place suggests that the USU might be aware of this, hushing up decision-making rather than find itself at the brunt of criticism. Yet surely an open dialogue with the university community would be the best way to deflect such criticism in the first place?

C'mon, USU.

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