Tension erupts between Sydney University staff and student unions

Tension has erupted between staff and student unions over the unprecedented 48-hour industrial action that took place at the University of Sydney last week.

The second round of industrial action has occurred as university staff have not been able negotiate a suitable enterprise agreement with the university management. Central to this strike is the university management’s desire to increase casual staff, uncap working hours and remove the staff union from bargaining on behalf of university employees.

Those organising the strike have expressed disappointment with the student-led union, following a controversial document distributed to employees by the University of Sydney Union (USU), a provider of student programs and services.

The document, obtained as part of a Honi Soit exclusive, was sent by USU chief executive, Andrew Woodward, and was addressed to USU retail staff early last week.

It detailed the best methods to break the picket lines during the staff strike, assuring employees the information was provided ‘to help ensure your safety’. The language used by Woodward bears many similarities to the letter sent to students by the university’s Deputy Vice Chancellor who is currently unable to reach a compromise with staff unions.

A representative of the USU released a statement saying the letter was sent as a legal obligation of the chief executive officer, as an employer, to his staff.

National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) branch president, Michael Thompson, said he was frustrated by the USU’s response.

“It appears that the managers of the USU were instructing or encouraging staff not to support our struggle,” said Thompson, who was based at the City Road entrance picket line on Tuesday afternoon.

“Given the USU is a university community organisation, one would think and one would hope for better than that.”

Support from the USU on the picket lines was noticeably absent, said Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) branch vice president, Matthew Etherden. As the official at the footbridge picket line, he said no USU employees had been blocked from entering campus during the previous strike on March 7 this year.

It is understood that the USU board, governed by 12 current and former students of the university, passed a motion to support the staff strike in principle, at a meeting last month. Two separate motions – to close the commercial operation of the union during the industrial action and provide food vouchers to the picket line – were voted down. The official minutes from this meeting are yet to be released.

USU president, Astha Rajvanshi, was contacted for comment on Tuesday but has declined to comment.

Prominent activist and USU board member, Tom Raue, took part in the picket line where he was involved in an altercation with police. When approached on Tuesday afternoon, Raue said he felt unable to answer questions regarding USU’s involvement in the strike. A censure motion was passed against the board member last year for failing to “accurately and without distortion represent Board policy on any issue”.

Members of the student-led union responded in exasperation to the letter.

“People are frustrated that a student-based nominally student-run institution is choosing not to get involved in the fight for student and teacher’s rights,” wrote Angus Reoch, a political economy student at the university.

Other students on the picket line felt the Woodward letter was adequate given the USU board’s ruling. Education student Cameron Caccamo, who was live-tweeting the event, said: “Obviously the CEO is bound by what the board says; so if the board says commercial operations are still going ahead, it’s the prerogative of the CEO to look after his staff.”

An employee at the USU-operated coffee cart, beside the university’s largest library, noted that business on campus had slowed during the industrial action.

The university is yet to strike a deal with the unions, meaning another round of industrial action is likely to occur in the coming weeks.

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