August 2019

Strikes in Australian Higher Education: Stories From the Field

This article adopts critical auto-ethnography to examine how Australian university unions and unionists have developed strategies for campus activism. The enablers and restraints on union activism in Australian higher education are discussed using the device of vignettes of a unionist active in the sector from the 1980’s onwards, and an agenda for the future raised.

by Dr. Ann Lawless

My analysis in this article is informed by the prominence of the national as a domain of regulation in industrial activism in Australia and draws evidence from a critical auto-ethnographic study of unionism. My perspective draws from having participated in labor activism in concert with three different unions in higher education since 1982 in seven different Australian higher education institutions across several states.

A number of unions represent the Australian higher education worker, largely dependent on the categorization of their work on campus, and the industry they belong to e.g. academics, professional/general staff, food and beverage workers, security and so on. However, two unions now tend to represent most unionized staff on campus– the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU); and the Community and Public Sector Union/Public Service Association (CPSU/PSA).

Australia moved from centralized wage fixing to enterprise bargaining in the 1990’s, raising concerns among campus activists. Under centralized wage fixing “industrial awards were the primary instrument that set out, in a comprehensive way, terms and conditions for most workers” (Gahan, 2017, p. 2), creating wage parity across the nation within an industry. Under enterprise bargaining, each university has bartered with branches of unions for working conditions in that university, although legislatures set the minimal federal standards (Brandt 2018). The right of workers to strike has been established in so many international conventions and covenants that the right to strike is customary international law (Kiai 2018), but there is low compliance with international standards in Australian law. It is illegal to strike in Australia unless a governing authority grants immunity to strikers, and immunity is only granted under stringent conditions and strict compliance with an enthusiastically regulated system affording limited protections for workers. As McCrystal has argued (2019, p. 130), “by international comparisons the Australian legal system is highly restrictive with respect to the circumstances in which it is possible to take lawful industrial action”. Since 1992 (Gahan 2017), much industrial action in Australia has been made illegal, severely handicapping our capacity to act (Gao 2018). 

University unions currently attempt to coordinate on a national level while organizing at a local level, and this is informed by steerage from national secretariats of higher education unions. Employers and university managers also coordinate their bargaining through their own national structure in organizations such as Australian Higher Education Industry Association (AHEIA). The presence of firewalls around the AHEIA website and resources restricts access to resources, detracting from transparency of operations, and limiting research capacity – and therefore critical discourse.

VIGNETTE A: Two Unions, Two Strategies (c.1993)

I and other members of the CPSU/PSA working at a campus of an Australian university had increasing concerns about our local working conditions and the implications of national shifts from central wage fixing to enterprise bargaining. We reflected on new legislative moves to make any strike unlawful in Australia unless conducted within a highly regulated and restricted set of “protections”. We were members of the general or non-academic staff working in a central administrative unit of a major university. Our academic colleagues were members of the National Tertiary Education Union. While we conversed and socialized with colleagues in the NTEU and with solidarity in our mutual concerns, this collegiality and solidarity was threatened when our unions took up differing strategies in relation to strike actions.

University management decided to aggressively enforce recent conservative legislative changes available to them as a result of the shift to enterprise bargaining and to control our options for lawful industrial actions such as strikes. Our local manager issued staff with instructions to declare beforehand if we intended to strike and of what union we were members. They also announced that we would have our salaries docked if we went on strike and did not attend for work. Further, we were told that absence would result in being disciplined (including the possibility of dismissal) if we went on strike without being a member of the union authorized to call the lawful strike under new industrial legislation. As the conflict with management escalated, the two unions took differing strategies for industrial activism. To our dismay, our own union, the CPSU/PSA, decided not to call us out on strike while the NTEU called for a strike and organized pickets and solidarity actions.

Many of us had to decide what to do – declaring union membership might result in retaliation against unionized staff, and loss of income. We urged our union to call us out on strike, but our call was refused, and the union explained the legal ramifications for anyone who acted against union advice and without compliance with the legal processes according to Australian labor law. While many of us were forced to attend work where our presence was carefully noted by local managers, we took rest breaks, which we normally skipped in favor of providing quality and timely services to students and colleagues, and went home on time. We also called for a meeting with our union leaders on our campus (they preferred to meet in the union offices, but we insisted it be held at our worksite) and confronted them. A frank and robust union conversation resulted in which we made clear that we expected our local leadership to guide decisions made by union executives, and we would be monitoring their adherence to membership-led moves rather than executive decisions.

This form of managing upwards within the union, of persistent and insistent forms of member deliberation within unions and seeing the union itself as a site of social transformation, has remained with me as an essential feature of effective union activism for rank-and-file members. It has included regular attendance at union meetings and joining in collective decision-making, initiating contact with my union to tell then when they are doing something well, and robust and vigorous conversations when there was a critique to offer my union.  

The loss of workers’ industrial rights in Australia from the 1980’s onwards (Gahan 2017) has not passed without civil protest and contestation, as noted in the vignettes in this article. But this vignette also raises issues about success and failure in activism. It is noteworthy that we had successes in forming solidarity, in sustaining communicative actions across campus, in welcoming inexperienced activists to a community of activists, and in learning about the rule-based systems that governed our working lives. We also experienced failure to influence and change the harsh legislative regimes that emerged to control the Australian worker’s right to strike. This continues to be a frustrating and harsh lesson from industrial activism and suggests that the law itself is a necessary site of social transformation but also one which is very challenging to effect. Reflecting on this as a rule-based system leads one to reflect deeply on what change is possible in the future and how it might be achieved, a necessary form of on-going and future reflection and activist work for justice for workers, citizens and human rights activists.

VIGNETTE B: Holding the Picket Line (c. 2000)

I was now a member of the National Tertiary Education Union working at a campus of an Australian university. My colleagues and I had increasing concerns about our working conditions, and also wider concerns about enterprise bargaining legislation and its constriction on workers’ right to strike, to take industrial action and freedom of speech to criticize universities in the public domain. We attended union meetings in which we debated which industrial actions to take – including withholding the processing of grades and the impact of this on students, and strike actions with picket lines and union meetings that brought together strikers from multiple campuses. I listened carefully to the debate and was very uncertain about the ethics of withholding the processing of grades, fearing the impact on students. But I was persuaded by the debate point that we were also demonstrating to students the importance of action in the public sphere and for workers’ rights; the importance of standing up for their quality education; and the actions of a civil society which values education. I learned and have never forgotten that our working conditions are the learning conditions of our students. That debate was thoughtful, lively and rigorous; and we decided together to ask the union to follow legal procedures to declare a log of claims and declare the actions we were prepared to take – that is, observing and working within compliance and civil obedience to the new enterprise bargaining laws.

After management refused to meet our claims, I joined other union members to organize and hold a lawful strike, to form picket lines explaining to students and staff why we were striking and holding the picket line, to welcome bus-loads of unionists to our campus for solidarity actions and move around campus explaining our actions and sharing food and music. Our campus union members greeted fellow protesters from other campuses, and walked with them to the rally places around our campus. We were photographed by senior managers and cheerfully waved to them while they did so. We lost income for those days of the strike, having not reported for work where our absence was carefully noted by local managers willingly complicit with management instructions. We also faced difficult conversations with anti-unionists. We replaced signs and notices they had removed on the day of the strike, and made ourselves available for those difficult conversations in the days after. Some of them were our mates, Aussie friends who had embraced and eagerly complied with management instruction and the new conservatism in industrial affairs. Some collegial friendships and mateships suffered as a result, a high price indeed but part of the emotional labor of unionists in controversial and heated zones.

The emotional labor of activism has been well-researched (see Lawless 2013, p. 245). We learned from each other of the moral courage needed to take a stand in the face of hostile managers and complicit colleagues, the strategies to foster moral courage in each other, and to treat fear and anxiety as emotional experiences which could be shifted to courage and determination. We also learned of what it takes to return to work the next day and get on with business as usual amidst strong emotional and collegial impacts of taking a public stand.

We reflected on the implications of our civil obedience and grappled with our compliance with unjust industrial laws aggressively enforced by university employers. As McCrystal has noted, “most unions in Australia have tried to play by the book, seeking to operate within the sphere of legality” (2019, 140). The price for civil disobedience is high, with severe penalties for both unions and for employees, and my own unions have always urged both understanding of the harsh legislative regime and compliance with it. As noted by Gao (2018), the penalties enforceable on non-compliant unions are harsh and there is only one union in the country that might be able to pay the financial penalties inflicted for unprotected actions, such as illegal strike action by Australian unions and their members.

Reflection on compliance with injustice in the Australian academy is essential – not just in the legal domain, but also in the cultural domain of workers lives, (see Kalfa, Wilkinson and Gollan 2018 for a thoughtful discussion of academic staff acquiescence with managerialism based on empirical research in an Australian context). We also need to understand their interplay with other domains of influence, and how effective change towards human rights and the empowerment of worker-citizens might take place.

Vignette C: Silencing Dissent in Social Media (c. 2018).

Working at an Australian university, I witnessed administrative discipline of a colleague who expressed dislike of their job on social media. I and other members of a local team were sternly warned that using social media such as Facebook and threatening the brand reputation of our local unit in the university would result in disciplinary action. 

Future research is essential to the success of worker-citizen rights and the labor movement. Beyond the lack of access to important sources of labor in higher education, Australian researchers conducting research as university employees need to be mindful that employers monitor social media (including Facebook and Twitter) and mainstream media. They will move to protect the “brand reputation” of universities if employees express discontent publicly. Some of this enters the public domain and is accessible to researchers. Unfortunately, some opportunities for future research are lost when critical experiences go unreported, making data inaccessible to higher education researchers.

To my knowledge this incident never went beyond our local workplace, with no appeal to union for finding voice or remedy about workplace injustices and miseries, with no publicity or documentation for researchers to access for reflection and analysis about, for example, civil liberties and rights to free speech.

Such fear-mongering by managers can be effective in higher-education, making researchers fearful of retribution. Such fear-mongering by supervisors can have a chilling effect on academic freedom, silencing and alienating workers who might otherwise seek remedy for industrial injustices and infringement of human rights, and thus limits the opportunity for future analysis by researchers. And silence and compliance are threats to research, as is researchers’ fear of retribution for their research. It is time to remember the promise of activism—to help future researchers to find the tenacity and courage we need to peer into the unresearched and unknown, and to find hope in our capacity to make meaning and a reform agenda for social action out of our discoveries.

In this article I have drawn attention to sites needing transformation in Australia: the internal processes of unions and the law itself. I have raised issues of success and failure in activism, and the emotional labor of the campus activist. I have discussed issues about compliance not only in terms of compliance with civil obedience to unjust laws but also our acquiescence to workplace and cultural norms that isolate and alienate the workforce. I have made suggestions for the future and identified that courage and hope are just as essential to higher education researchers as they are to activists seeking social transformation.

Ann Lawless is an Australian unionist, activist, sociologist, and Habermasian scholar. She is convener of the sociology and activism SIG of the Australian Sociology Association. She is an active aunty, niece, sister and cousin in a large family. She can be contacted on ResearchGate,, and LinkedIn.

Further Reading

Bandt, A, 2018, Good Work: The Greens ten principles for rewriting our labour laws. The Greens, June 2018.

Gahan, P, 2017, Cabinet Papers 1992-93: the rise and fall of enterprise bargaining agreements. The Conversation, January 1st 2017.

Gao, L, 2018. Wage Theft, Arena (July15, 2018).

Kaia, M 2018, Fundamental right to strike must be preserved, Office High Commissioner Human Rights. accessed 090819

Kalfa, S, Wilkinson, A and Gollan PJ, 2018, The academic game: compliance and resistance in universities. Work, Employment and Society, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 274-291.

Lawless, A, 2013, Activism in the Academy: a study of activism in the South Australian higher education workforce 1998-2008, Unpublished thesis, University of South Australia.

McCrystal, S, 2019. Why is it so hard to take lawful strike action in Australia? Journal Industrial Relations, vol. 61, no. 1, pp. 129-144.

O’Brien, J.M., 2015. The National Tertiary Education Union: A Most Unlikely Union. New South Publishing.

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