A further reply to Socialist Alternative

In our response to Jerome Small’s first Red Flag article, we commented on Small’s lack of concern for the facts of the Sydney University EA campaign, and wrote that this should discredit him as a serious commentator on union affairs. Nothing in his second article leads us to change that assessment.

RAFA is committed to comradely discussion and review of the EA campaign. What we’re not interested in is perpetuating an exchange with Socialist Alternative, whose main intention clearly is to differentiate themselves at any cost from the rest of the Left, regardless of the actual politics or the facts of the campaign. So we will not repeat the refutations of Small’s overall assessment of the campaign that we have already made. We will, however, correct two points where his analysis again falls short of the standards that should hold in serious debate.

‘Opening the door’ to an explosion of EFRs 

First, Small maintains his claim about RAFA’s role in enabling, rather than opposing, the expansion of Education-Focused Roles made possible by the new agreement – an expansion we have consistently argued against. Exhibit A for the prosecution, in Small’s narrative, is a motion on academic work passed at a general members’ meeting in March 2022 – months before the full extent of management’s intentions for EFRs became evident on December 6. Small writes that RAFA supported this motion, and that it ‘opened the door for the explosion of EFRs found in the proposed deal’. 

Let’s leave aside the inconvenient fact that RAFA didn’t even exist in March 2022 (why didn’t this rate a mention from Small? Was he even aware of it?). Small neglects to mention that this motion called for ‘a limited number of education-focused roles’ only, strictly as a decasualisation measure, and emphasised the importance of ‘protecting the research and teaching nexus and significantly expanding the proportion of academic work performed by staff in 40:40:20 positions’. We leave it to readers to judge whether all this constitutes ‘opening the door for an explosion of EFRs’, as Small claims. 

He also neglects to mention that it was management who had already ‘opened the door’ to the EFR explosion, by including it as one of their original claims in their 2021 Enterprise Bargaining proposals, with a plan to completely uncap the number of such roles. All factions in the branch, Thrive, Fightback and RAFA, have always rejected this uncapping. 

Regardless of these misrepresentations, it isn’t motions, but the commitment to the campaign, which determines what doors are open or shut in EA negotiations. It wasn’t till much later, in December 2022, and following six days of strikes, that management announced that they would be prepared to accept a cap of ‘only’ 30% of EFRs – a rhetorical backdown from their previous desire for no cap at all. Under pressure from the NTEU, management then further reduced this proportion to 25%. RAFA was at the forefront of the campaigning that provoked these shifts. Had we won the vote on April 18 of this year, we would have continued to campaign for better workload controls for, and a still lower cap on, EF roles, consistent with the politics we have brought to the campaign since RAFA’s creation. 

Pay for all hours worked

Second, Small continues Socialist Alternative and Fightback’s critique of the pay-for-all-hours-worked clause. But he makes a crucial admission – that they are not demanding that casuals be ‘automatically’ paid for every hour they bill the university. This was news to us: exactly a demand for automatic payment was the substance of their original critique of the clause, which stated that the clause ‘risks being useless unless it specifies that work such as reading texts, attending lectures and preparation for tutorials are all paid activities for whatever amount of time they take’ (emphasis added).

We agree that casuals should be paid for however long they take to do the necessary work – but no management anywhere, including at the University of Melbourne, would accept a claim like this without an order-of-magnitude increase in NTEU members’ density and militancy. In the absence of a commitment to automatically pay casuals for all the work they bill, a mechanism is needed to allow casuals to demand more payment than they are offered under the existing terms of their contract. This is exactly what we have negotiated: a formal and explicit process, which previously didn’t exist in the Agreement, for casual staff either to receive payment for work in excess of the ‘rolled-up’ casual rates, or no longer to be obliged to conduct the work. 

This mechanism isn’t perfect, by any means, and management will do everything they can to undermine it. But it doesn’t preclude other solutions, and – unlike the alternatives of higher piece rates or raising the casual loading – was actually achieved. So the mechanism should not be rejected outright, but tested. Strong enforcement and campaigning measures, in conjunction with current wage theft disputes and efforts to impose more favourable pay and conditions through workload committees, will be needed to use it to members’ advantage – exactly what Socialist Alternative and Fightback are undermining in their determination to discredit all forces in the branch other than themselves.

One thought on “A further reply to Socialist Alternative

  1. Differing from the rest of the left was the sectarian mantra of the Armstrong/Bloodworth group back in the disastrous split of 1983. Some of us have learned from that. It seems that SAlt has drawn the wrong conclusions


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