Scabs, unions and the beauty of pickets

Christine Lai explains why it’s crucial that we disrupt.

Over the last few years, USyd has had its share of run-ins with management. Whether it’s  fights against wage theft, casualisation of jobs or abhorrent course cuts, the bottom line remains the same: management’s profit-geared interests are not aligned to the interests of staff and students alike. In fact, they’re making it their prerogative to ensure business can run smoothly at the expense of overworked staff, who are victims of systematic underpayment and forced to choose between forfeiting pay or teaching while sick due to the denial of access to paid sick leave. Brutal working conditions are only doing a disservice to the academic learning community and are disenfranchising staff from being able to properly conduct a rich and stimulating class environment. 

Encouragingly, this year alone has bore witness to a resounding strength in collective action and militancy of workers across the public sector. Both the teachers’ and nurses’ strikes were the first to have occurred in over a decade (the first teacher’s strike began late last year and continued to barrell into this year with their ‘More Than Thanks’ campaign). Nurses are fighting for pay rises, higher nurse-to-patient ratios on every shift, increases in staffing for maternity wards and an allowance for nurses staffed in regional and rural hospitals. NSW Rail workers took strike action in December of last year too, where thousands of drivers, train guards, support workers, station staff and signallers shut down the NSW public transport system in their fight against privatisation and the erosion of working conditions. The demonstration of collective power to protest wage caps and challenge the renewed pressure on essential public sector work puts workers in a stronger position to challenge state governments and demand better treatment. 

As mentioned in a previous article, the politically charged term ‘scab’ has returned to the lingo of striking workers (e.g. “scabs undermine strike movements and shamefully decide that their individual interests outweigh the collective”). . Scab labour renders a strike useless. We cannot build militant strike actions if there are people willing to sell themselves out in line with the interests of management, breaking union power. They are a major threat to the viability of collective bargaining. 

In Household Words, Stephanie Smith conveys the historical implication of the term, ‘scab’, and the connotation it holds now, under the breadth of the trade union movement. 

“From blemish … to strikebreaker, the history of the word scab … shows a displacement of meaning from the visceral or physical to the moral register … Just as a scab is a physical lesion, the strikebreaking scab disfigures the social body of labor—both the solidarity of workers and the dignity of work.

United, the voices of workers demand attention by the bosses. When scabs decide to attend work regardless, or when management hires replacement workers (also scabs!) to fill roles temporarily during strikes, the fight for the rights of the rank and file is undermined. 

Response to concerns about last week’s strikes 

It would be remiss of me to write this article without responding to concerns which have since been brought up regarding the strike and picket movement last week. One thread that has made its way around the USyd online sphere began with an individual recounting their attempt at entering Fisher Library to study on one of the days of our strike and being denied entry by the frontline picketers. They were aggrieved at having been turned away, and at the forced detour to visit a different library to study. In their post, they posed the question, “How does denying student entry to the library contribute to increasing wages to staff and teachers? How does punishing random civilians who are tryna get their degrees accomplish this?” They followed this up with, “I get that they want to make a statement, but can’t they make the same statement without resorting to violence/aggression and damaging the education of students who arent the reason why staff are getting shit pay?”

To answer these questions – which are representative of many students’ concerns – I must first contextualise the nature of the strike and pickets, and what they mean as a point of industrial action. 

Strikes are known as a mass-scale stoppage of work by employees as a form of protest to demand concessions. Usually, this is in respect to working conditions, and they represent a demand for increased pay and better terms and conditions of their employment contract. 

While strikes are a cessation of work and withdrawal of labour, picketing involves the assemblage of workers outside a workplace and is a public demonstration of protest. It brings production to a halt and necessitates the question: Are you on the workers’ side, or the management’s side? management.?

While the student raised concerns of their inability to access the library, the larger and more crucial point is the shut-down of the entire university, library included. Closing down access to the campus and stopping worker labour (which includes teaching students, doing research and using facilities and resources like libraries) highlights that workers are essential to running the university and therefore deserve to have their demands listened to, and granted. One argument which a number of us picketers made on the day was in response to students who were coming to us from an individualistic point of view, with concerns about class participation, failing classes or not having enough time to finish an assignment. All of these concerns are valid. However, the interests of one individual does not, and should not, outweigh the collective interests of workers, especially those losing two days of pay in order to fight for better conditions. 

While students are not responsible for staff’s atrocious working conditions, our interests are the same, and we should be standing on the frontlines in solidarity with them to fight for their rights. Staff working conditions dictate student learning conditions. Our tutors are underpaid and overworked. Attacks to every sector and faculty have been made left, right and centre. Over half of employees at USyd are on casual employment, and management expect academic staff to respond to emails, student queries and take on consultation hours outside of class hours; all acts of unpaid labour. Last year, USyd management only offered 69 positions to the 4173 casual staff it was required to consider for permanent positions under the Fair Work Act

Furthermore, the premise of a picket is one that revolves around disruption. Pickets have never been advertised as peaceful, and to nonchalantly claim that a strike should be ‘calm’ or ‘sensible’ is a lackadaisical act that fails to consider the hard work of mobilising a movement. Being polite and engaging in lukewarm niceties has never resulted in truly powerful wins for union workers and strikers. In fact, acts like these are fuel to management’s fire. Which action is more invigorating: asking politely for grievances to be fixed or ceasing work to demand better treatment? 

Crossing the picket is an action that fundamentally breaches the labour movement while enabling the university to maintain their status quo. 

Pickets: Hard or Soft? 

As mentioned, the nature of pickets is to be disruptive. Pickets ensure workplaces are completely shut down by withdrawing worker labour to force the hand of management. A picket also means that no one will be entering or exiting campus at all. Those who attempt to enter and cross the picket line will be met by picketers who will try to persuade them to show support for the workers by leaving, standing alongside the barracks, or making it incredibly difficult to enter campus. 

Hundreds of students were prepared to stand in defence of the strike – against scabs, and alongside workers. They will do it all over again on May 24. 

During the two-day shut down last week, I witnessed many types of scabs attempt to enter campus. Some in BMWs (we kept a tally of the ones we turned away), some dressed in party gear. Some in management, others who were students. Though persuasion and convincing worked to deter some from entering, others would not listen to the politics of our strike, and some attempted to fight their way through the arm-in-arm picket line. The necessity of a formation of hard pickets was a debate that arose during the strikes, but it was something that was agreed upon based on the belief that standing our ground and being resolute in ensuring no one crossed the line was essential in shutting down campus. 

Again, concessions cannot be made to university management. Letting anyone enter campus during a picket sends a message that undermines the collective action of workers. In times of campus politicisation, things will get rowdy and argumentative. This is a good thing. Having political arguments about the importance of joining the pickets in solidarity and why workers are fighting to preserve the 40/40/20 academic model, the fight for paid leave, gender affirmation/transition leave, an employment target for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Isalander people and the end to casualisation, are all vital in fighting the corporate interests of management and demonstrating the power of academic staff at the university. 

Hard pickets are a fantastic way of organising focus around discussing strikes and assessing the impact of collective action, and are also a tremendous morale booster. When protests occur, police presence is bound to follow suit. Having strength in numbers and a militant picket, unwilling to break even during scuffles with the police and scabs, is vital in defending our cause and bolstering confidence in those on the frontlines. 

When it comes to strikes and pickets, there is no room for neutrality. Being apolitical is a privilege in and of itself. It means that one is comfortable with the status quo and communicates that there is nothing unjust about the world, or that one doesn’t care to know about it. 

Illustration by Sanitarypanels from WordPress
Source: Sanitary Panels

Being on the pickets afforded me the privilege of witnessing the militant action of students  cohering around a compelling movement. The spirit of the pickets was also seen in the powerful chants and the singing of union songs -classic tunes celebrating workers movements from the past (with a nod to The Red Flag, The Internationale and Bella Ciao) that were accompanied by a French horn. 

The strike next Tuesday is a few days away from Reconciliation Week, and will be primarily focused on reaching employment targets for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The pickets will also emphasise demands made by the NTEU during the enterprise bargaining agreement process, including a pay increase in line with inflation rates, the end to casualisation, better recognition of work from home rights for staff and the protection of the 40/40/20 model. 

Join us on the frontlines to fight for our staff. Whose side are you on? 

You can donate to the NTEU strike fund for casual and low-income staff here.

Further information/resources: 

EAG Pre-Stike/Picket Briefing next Monday

Student contingent to the May 24 Strike

Facebook group for USYD’s Education Action Group

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