USYD Staff Strikes: Here’s what you missed on the picket line

Missed the staff strike this week? Wondering why you couldn’t get onto campus on Wednesday or Thursday? Christine Lai has you covered.

The previous 2 days have been electric on the picket lines at USYD. An entire campus shutdown following a vote for industrial action has seen many vibrant groups protesting for better working conditions for staff. For those who missed the action on either day, the following is a rundown of what happened, when the rabble-rousing got rowdy and more importantly, how we came together and mobilised an incredible militant action to shut down the university. 

Some general highlights from the frontlines included blocking people and vehicles from entering the university(left, right and centre), and bringing a feisty zeal to the pickets which involved chants, songs and naturally, the occasional run-in with the cops, with people standing up to their violence and intimidation.

One term which has become popular within the movement is the word ‘scab’. For context, a ‘scab’ is someone who willingly crosses the picket line: they refuse to join a union, they attend work despite an ongoing strike/return to work before the strike has ended, or they are brought in as a temporary replacement to cover workers on strike. By actively choosing to attend work, or campus in this case, scabs are undermining the movement of the strike and have shamefully decided that their individual interests outweigh the collective.

The pickets ran from 7am-1pm on both days. Praise must be given to those staunch activists who played a large part in the lead-up to this action, organising the movement, building student contingents, and getting the word out from the moment the vote was taken. In particular, the two SRC Education Officers, Lia Perkins and Deaglan Godwin, along with every member of the Education Action Group (EAG), played a large role in ensuring the high student turnout during the pickets, as they worked alongside members of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), leafleting, stalling, and making the rounds across lectures and tutorials to drive in the importance of this fight.

Day 1

I arrived at USYD on Wednesday just after half past six in the morning, half-asleep and in at least three layers, with a scarf wrapped snugly around my neck. It’s safe to say that I have not needed to leave the house nor wake this early in quite a while. I made my way to Victoria Park, where I saw people setting up and holding colourful posters and signs, many dressed in purple (NTEU colours). One short trip to a local café and a hot chocolate later, I returned to the City Road entrance and was on leafleting duty. A small group of us were asked to form a picket across a driveway to prevent vehicles from entering campus. I would end up spending most of my day at the entrance to the park.

“Rain, hail, or shine. We will hold the picket line.”

Much cheering could be heard from further down City Road, so I went to check it out. The contingent there had built up momentum with shouts of, “No one in, no one out. Shut the Uni down!”, as our first picket-barricade for the day blocked delivery drivers and a few cars attempting to turn into the street. The energy was on an exponential rise, with other favourites including the invigorating sing-yelling of, “I would rather be a picket than a scab.” A comrade kept the morale high by moving into song with the renowned union anthem, “Solidarity Forever”. Many cars and buses honked their horns in solidarity, with some passengers seen waving their hands out of windows and yelling out, “woo hoos” and “good on you!”. 

The day was full of good cheer and enthusiasm. Barricade building occurred across every picket location, and people soon started turning empty cylinders into make-shift drums and using any surface to make some noise (banging on fences, walls etc). I heard through the grapevine that a comrade had begun taking count of the number of BMWs their picket line was able to turn away – there were at least 5 of that brand of car alone in the early morning. People bravely brought their pets along despite the weather, making for a solid turnout of union dogs. Additionally, a digital picket, which included a forum for those unable to attend the picket in person, was attended in solidarity by several people from different universities. 

Day 2

I must begin with a caveat: I came onto campus with the goal of heading to each picket line and taking photographs and videos from each location, but I ended up sticking around one of the major ones for the entire day. No regrets.

I came in through City Road, left my belongings there and walked over to the Ross Street entrance, camera slung over my shoulder, ready to face scabs. It may have been due to the picket’s early start, but we were relatively low in numbers at the beginning of the day, which made it difficult to turn people away. Leaflets were handed out, people were spoken to, but quite a few unfortunately crossed the picket line. Not to worry! A call out was sent for more protesters to join us at the Ross Street picket, and within half an hour, we were ready. 

A large group of students could be heard chanting as they made their way towards the pickets. During this time, I had stopped a car from entering the grounds and was having a long conversation with a PhD student on why her attempting to cross the picket line was wrong. 

Reminder: Honouring a picket line is vital to show support with striking workers. During a picket, there are two choices: to cross, or to stand alongside workers. It must be noted that there is no room for grey areas here – crossing the picket means that you’re taking the side of management and that you are actively taking part in eroding the collective workers’ movement. The workers united will never be defeated. 

Day 2 was much rowdier. Upon the cavalry’s (read: staunch student activists) arrival, the energy at the pickets was raised considerably, despite the police officers that were conveniently parked along Parramatta road, milling about. Occasional scuffles with the cops, who were on the side of scabs, occurred, as they would try to push their way through the picket line. Speaking of scabs – they too were particularly defiant today, with non-union casual staff and college students making up the majority of them. However, a special shoutout goes out to a guest lecturer who decided against entering after hearing our fight and instead opted to stand on the side of the workers. 

Associate Professor Ron Clark, a member of the Chemistry department at USYD, arrived mid-morning with stapled music sheets and handed them out to us, undeterred by the pouring rain which had already caused many a sign to bleed with paint. He played the French Horn to songs including ‘The Internationale’ (a song which has deeply radical roots and has become an anthem of celebration for the power of workers), Billy Bragg’s ‘The Red Flag’, and ‘Bella Ciao’ (an anti-fascist Italian liberation anthem). The atmosphere was significantly brightened by the singing, dancing and chanting that took place.

Other highlights included the arrival of more union dogs (one was snug in a handbag), a guy in a suit who had taken his shoes off (for reasons unknown) while attempting to go through the picket, and a post-picket sausage sizzle. Also, the ponchos. 

Some unfortunate lowlights included witnessing two plain-clothed police officers patrolling around the outskirts of our picket, and college students dressed up in themed party gear trying to cross the picket line and actively ignoring our concerns and our cause to fight in solidarity with workers. Not the vibe. 

Manning the pickets on the frontlines made for easily two of the best days of my life. Our hard pickets were charged by police on more than one occasion, but this did not dissuade us – in fact it gave us more energy to be stronger and revel in our solidarity. We made sure no scab would worm their way in, and if they tried, they would be faced with our militant students linked arm-in-arm, daring them to cross. A mass singing of classic antifascist songs, the breakdancing circle accompanied by rousing chants, and standing our ground despite the torrential rain made these two days incredibly memorable. 

There will be a follow up strike in Week 13 at USYD, a few days before Reconciliation Week, which will be focused on setting up enforceable targets for hiring people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage. Add May 24 to your calendar: we are returning to the pickets and will be braving the weather to fight for our staff. Brush up on union songs and get ready to link up again with our fellow comrades, or to come join our pickets for the first time. There’s strength in numbers, and we need all the help we can get. 

To conclude, here are some memorable chants from the last couple of days which can be used in the upcoming pickets to be held in Week 13:

  • “When workers’ rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up fight back” 
  • “Get up. Get down. There’s a union movement in this town.” 
  • “No one in. No one out. Shut the uni down.” 
  • “No cuts. No fees. No corporate universities.” 

See you at the picket line!

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