Casual University Workers in Australia Are Escalating the Campaign Against Wage Theft

After enduring wage theft and job insecurity for years, casualized workers at Australian universities are pushing back. Faced with multiplying court cases and industrial action, university managers are desperately trying to avoid taking responsibility.

At Monash University, workers are fighting back against wage theft. (@CasualsMonash / Twitter)

Monash University recently ranked 44th in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, up thirteen places from last year. The news prompted Vice Chancellor Margaret Gardner to comment that the university has “established a world-renowned reputation” for “education of the highest international quality.”

This success, however, is built on widespread and systemic wage theft. Monash has already admitted to $8.6 million of it.

Wage theft takes many forms. For example, Monash has previously misclassified tutorials as “demonstrations,” “labs,” or “practicals” because these are paid at lower rates. Similarly, Monash, like many other universities, has underpaid casuals by dramatically underestimating the time it takes to mark assignments. Perhaps most galling of all, Monash also refuses outright to pay for some types of work necessary to teaching, including attending lectures and holding consultation hours.

None of these practices are new. Nor are they out of step with other universities. But what is new is that after scoring a number of key early victories, casual Monash employees are escalating their campaign against wage theft. Not only are there signs that their efforts are bearing fruit — they could signal the beginning of a wave of industrial struggle across Australian universities.

Baked In

In 2020, casual employees at Monash University established the Monash Casuals Network (MCN), which includes both professional and academic staff members. For academic casuals, a large part of our jobs is teaching. As such, we are acutely aware that Monash refuses to pay us for work that is crucial to our students.

The first wage theft campaign against the university — driven by MCN members — was successful, and it focused on underpayment for marking and teaching. Now, the MCN has turned to the university’s refusal to pay for student consultation hours.

Consultation hours are regularly scheduled times where students can come and ask questions and seek assistance from their tutors and lecturers. They are a central feature of a university education and provide students access to both academic support and pastoral care. They are also not optional. The university directs us to hold consultation hours while refusing to pay us for doing so.

The MCN and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) have attempted to reach an agreement with the university over this issue a number of times. Repeatedly, Monash has refused.

In response, in September, the NTEU lodged Federal Court proceedings. It is the first time a case of this kind has been launched in Australia; normally, disputes like this are usually heard by the Fair Work Commission. The Federal Court is a higher court, however, and consequently, the case has potentially far-ranging implications for other institutions who are engaging in wage theft.

This court case coincides with a rising awareness of the pervasive problem of wage theft and hyperexploitation of casual staff by universities. Casuals networks have formed at a number of universities, including Deakin University, La Trobe University, and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, or RMIT, where similar campaigns against wage theft are under way. So far, La Trobe, RMIT, Monash, and Melbourne University have all been forced to repay stolen wages to casuals.

And that list only covers Victoria — nationwide, the list is even longer. Indeed, more than half of the country’s public universities are either under investigation for wage theft or have already admitted to it. The total figure universities have repaid is already in the tens of millions of dollars and rising. Just a few weeks ago, Melbourne University agreed to repay fifteen thousand current and former workers a further $22 million of stolen wages.

For someone on a vice chancellor’s salary, the amount that individual workers receive may seem insignificant, ranging from a few hundred dollars to thousands. For casuals however, it’s common to live pay check to pay check and endure long stretches between semesters with no work. For us, these payments mean a great deal.

Monash, Money, and Mobilization

Despite its claims to the contrary, Monash is flush with cash. The $8.6 million in stolen wages it was forced to repay pales in comparison to its 2021 pre-tax operating surplus of $416 million. The university tapped into that surplus in August to fund their purchase of the former Toyota research facility for $66 million dollars.

But the cash splash ends when it comes to staff, and this is the case for all staff and not just casuals. The last Monash Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) expired in June this year, and the university has repeatedly delayed bargaining for the new one.

These delays mean that staff have seen their real wages decline while the cost of living has skyrocketed. Meanwhile, Gardner — one of the most highly paid vice chancellors in the country — pays herself as much in one week as many casuals earn in an entire semester.

That is why, alongside the Federal Court proceedings, the MCN and NTEU have been actively engaging in grassroots organizing to continue to build pressure. Power concedes nothing without demand.

The MCN and NTEU’s organizing efforts over the current EBA began in July with a petition for a 4 percent pay raise, intended to help offset rising inflation and the effective pay cuts brought about by the delays to enterprise bargaining. Most recently, on October 6, the union and the MCN held a rally against casual wage theft. These actions are beginning to see results.

On July 18, management sent an email to all staff members explaining why the university couldn’t afford to offer a pay rise. The day before the October rally, however, Gardner announced a 3 percent pay rise effective from December 3. This, she stated, would count as the first scheduled pay rise under the new EBA. Conveniently, it also allowed the university to sidestep the NTEU’s plans to formally present the chancellery with the petition for a pay rise.

Then, just a few days later, the university congratulated itself with an announcement that they would soon officially commence the enterprise bargaining they had previously been delaying.

It would be giving ourselves too much credit to believe that these decisions were made entirely in response to our actions and organizing. But at the same time, it is hard to fathom that they are completely separate.

An attack at one university is an attack on all university workers.

It would also be foolish to view these successes uncritically. The 3 percent pay rise is less than both the consumer price index (CPI) and what we campaigned for. It also conveniently takes effect after the end of teaching for second semester, meaning that many casuals won’t see the benefits until well into next year.

Furthermore, enterprise bargaining is a long and complicated process that offers employers almost limitless opportunities to manufacture delays. As early as a few weeks into bargaining, we have already seen these delays. Worse, the drawn out process can often mask the substance of changes that management wants to make to the agreement, which are usually cooked up via highly paid consultants. These can include job losses hidden under the guise of “restructuring” or increased workloads.

And this danger is not just limited to Monash. Universities are quick to import changes made by other institutions. An attack at one university is an attack on all university workers.

Australian universities are also attempting to counteract the threat of industrial action. Swinburne University recently resorted to standing down vocational education employees who have been engaged in limited industrial action to secure equal rights and pay as their colleagues who teach university courses. Similarly, Curtin University has gone to the Fair Work Commission to challenge a NTEU ballot over industrial action.

It’s not hard to work out why the universities are taking a hard-line approach. In response to decades of wage theft and cuts, strikes are also becoming more frequent. Staff at Sydney University have engaged in strike action multiple times this year. In October alone, eight different universities across every state and territory along the east coast held strike action. Just last week, Federation University’s three campuses at Berwick, Ballarat, and Gippsland also went on strike.

This rise in collective action is indicative of the dissatisfaction felt by educators and university staff. The degradation of working conditions across the sector have far-reaching effects. Our working conditions are student learning conditions; the two are inextricable. Despite this, university managers continue to prioritize profit over pedagogy.

Picketing the Ivory Tower

If the advent of the corporatized university has a silver lining, it is that it has done away with — or at least challenged — the notion that all university employees reside in the ivory tower. Vice chancellors with opulent salaries still fit that caricature. But other employees of the university, permanent academics included, have more in common with workers in the retail and hospitality sectors than with their VCs.

It is also worth placing the current struggles of casual university employees within the broader context of working-class struggle. Recently, Australia has witnessed an upsurge in industrial action ranging from nurses, teachers and early childhood educators, to workers in manufacturing, and retail. Indeed, October saw the first retail strike in decades, as Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) members at Apple struck in a significant demonstration of power.

In these instances, unions have supported on-the-ground, grassroots union members and activists by mobilizing workers for industrial action. Many of these campaigns have already won results, despite notoriously anti-worker industrial relations laws and institutions.

Nevertheless, it would be naive to hope that workers at Monash or other universities will win thanks to broader momentum alone. University managers are not alone in taking a hard-line stance — other large corporations including Coles, Bunnings, Dominos, and McDonald’s are all refusing to bargain over new enterprise agreements.

Although it will require a significant organizing effort to overcome management’s resistance, if the recent experience at Monash has demonstrated anything, it’s that it is possible to push back. If university workers are able to build on the recent uptick of wage theft cases and industrial actions, it may indicate a shift in the balance of power, away from management, toward unions.