Open-Ended Strikes Can Win at Australian Universities

Last year saw a historic wave of industrial action at universities across Australia. To win decisively, university workers need to move beyond symbolic actions and toward indefinite strikes that can genuinely disrupt production.

Demonstrators during a protest organized by the National Tertiary Education Union at the University of Sydney on March 9, 2023. (Brendon Thorne / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In August 2023, National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members at the University of Melbourne took the longest strike action in Australian higher education history. For a full week, union members from the Faculty of Arts, Student and Scholarly Services, Melbourne Law School, and the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music walked off the job. Just over a month later, NTEU members across all departments at the university followed it up with a second week-long strike.

The two strikes at Melbourne University are part of a global wave of labor militancy in higher education, which has seen university workers take unprecedented industrial action in the United States, the UK, and elsewhere. And the action at Melbourne University has not been an outlier in Australian higher education. Last year saw a number of strikes at other Australian universities, including Monash University, the University of Sydney, and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), among others. And these actions come in the context of growing public awareness of the crisis in higher education. Australian universities have come under criticism over their reliance on precarious casualized labor, widespread wage theft, and their links with arms manufacturers.

In short, there is an opportunity to transform our universities, and this will necessitate industrial strategy. One significant problem, however, is that in the modern university, strikes usually only entail a minor disruption to the production of the university’s primary commodity, namely, education. However, if we better understand the nature of the commodity that universities produce and how they produce it, it could help union members plan more powerful industrial actions.

A Strategic Impasse

As labor militancy has increased in Australian universities, it’s become apparent that there is a gulf between the goals unionists have set and the strategies with which they are pursuing them. Simply put, NTEU activists have not yet committed to a strategy that can actually win. And at the heart of this strategic impasse is a focus on actions that are largely symbolic, rather than actions that effectively disrupt the production of education.

The recent strikes at Australian universities have been time-bound, running for a limited number of days, with both workers and management aware of the length of the action. At the University of Sydney in 2022, for example, strikes ran for twenty-four or forty-eight hours, for a total of nine strike days over the course of twenty-two months. At Monash, union members struck for forty-eight hours in October 2023 and are set to strike again this week, although bargaining is ongoing. Workers at Melbourne took two week-long strikes, a month apart.

These strikes were positive in many ways. They grew membership, built solidarity, boosted morale, and broadcast the demands of the campaigns they emerged from. They also have led to significant wins. By shutting down classes and disrupting day-to-day life on campus, they threatened to damage the universities’ reputation, which was enough to extract some concessions from university management.

However, the disruption caused by these time-limited strikes did not severely impact universities’ production process, and so these actions remained essentially symbolic. They were victories, but not decisive ones, and their outcomes were often ambiguous.

The reason that time-bound strikes don’t disrupt production is because students do not pay for their education week by week. Rather, they pay for an entire semester’s worth of education at once, and so the production of the university’s main commodity must be considered on this timeline.

The loss of a week or two of classes might impact the quality of students’ education, but the university collects its fees regardless. And from a management perspective, time-bound strikes make reorganizing the business of the university relatively easy. A few days of lost teaching or administrative labor can easily be shifted back onto workers after the strike.

This reliance on symbolic, time-bound strikes is a large part of the reason why university managers have been able to get away with offering minor concessions, at most, and often on their terms. The end of casualization, insecurity, overwork, systemic underpayment, and corporate management remains out of sight.

Grading Bans Aren’t a Silver Bullet

The obvious and pressing task for university workers and the NTEU, then, is to plan industrial actions that do interfere meaningfully with university commodity production.

Student grades are a central choke point in the production of education and therefore make an obvious target. Without grades, students cannot pass subjects. And without passing subjects, they cannot progress through their degrees or graduate. This stops the production of the corporate university’s core product — the degree — impacting revenue as students threaten to withdraw fees.

On this logic, it’s common to view grading bans as the most effective form of industrial action. And strategically, this view makes a lot of sense. Compared to long-haul strikes during the teaching semester, grading bans can, theoretically, be implemented during the short period when grades are due to be released. This condensed timeline means a lower threshold for participation, and promises broader support and more widespread disruption.

However, a recent grading ban in the UK troubles the idea that such actions will be shorter in duration. Beginning in April 2023, University and College Union (UCU) members undertook a nationwide grading ban over pay and conditions. But even with tens of thousands of students at 145 universities impacted, when the ban ended after almost five months, the UCU had failed to obtain many of its key demands.

How this action transpired reveals some of the weak points of grading bans as a tactic. Obviously enough, a grading ban disrupts universities by withholding grades. This means that if management is able to circumvent the grading process, then it can deny workers their point of leverage. And there are a variety of ways to do this, some of which UK university administrators used. For example, they employed nonunionized labor for grading, carried over grades from earlier assessments, and in some cases simply allowed students to graduate without final grades.

One extreme alternative is the outright fabrication of grades, a tactic that management at the University of Michigan employed. When Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) members withheld grades in mid-2023, university administration directed faculty to give some students A grades for all their subjects.

Despite this, the GEO ultimately reached a deal with university management that met many of the union’s core demands, including expansions to health care, access to parental leave, and substantial pay rises. So, what was different here, compared to the UK?

The answer is that the GEO combined a grading ban with a broader strike. The focus was not exclusively on withholding grades, but rather on withdrawing labor of all kinds, including grading, teaching, research, and student support.

After workers walked off the job on March 29, 2023, the strike at Michigan lasted not only through the winter semester but across the summer break, which meant workers were organized to continue when classes resumed. By the time an agreement was reached — and approved by 97 percent of union members — it was less than a week before semester began and almost five months since workers first went on strike.

This demonstrates how organized labor can really disrupt production and win meaningful gains. And it also shows that while grading bans alone are unlikely to be sufficient, in the context of other actions, they can have tactical value. This is because universities produce commodified education over the course of an entire academic semester. While grading is a key moment in this process, if unions only target one chokepoint, their actions will remain vulnerable to countermeasures.

If, however, university workers take into account the actual time involved in the production of commodified tertiary education, a much more powerful form of industrial action becomes necessary: the open-ended strike.

The Open-Ended Strike

The wins at Michigan are only a part of growing industrial unrest in US higher education. For example, in 2021–22 graduate student workers at Columbia University struck for ten weeks. In late 2022, part-time faculty at the New School and Parson’s School of Design struck for twenty-five days, and in early 2023 at Temple University, teaching assistants struck for six weeks. All of these industrial actions achieved significant pay increases and other improvements.

While duration is clearly a common factor here, there is a more important similarity: these were all open-ended actions without a set end date.

In a fixed-length strike, every day of action brings the predetermined end point one day closer. Thus, as time passes, management’s incentive to wait until everyone is back at work increases, and consequently, workers’ power at the bargaining table decreases.

However, in an open-ended strike, this situation is inverted. When workers simply walk off the job, giving no indication of when they will return, each further day on strike amplifies management’s uncertainty. As more and more of the teaching semester is lost, with no end in sight, the university’s ability to deliver degrees is threatened. In other areas of the university with tight turnaround times, this disruption is potentially greater still. This is the case, for example, in timetabling, student support services, fee processing, graduations, and so on.

There are also legal advantages. An indefinite strike means there’s no legal requirement to give notice of industrial action within a certain time period, giving workers considerably more control. It’s then much easier to hold short notice rank-and-file meetings to vote on whether to continue or call off the strike.

These dynamics were all visible in recent industrial action at the University of California (UC), the largest strike in US higher education history. On November 14, 2022, 48,000 workers across UC’s nine campuses struck. They remained on strike for nearly six weeks, a feat that organizers attribute to an ongoing commitment to rank-and-file organizing and members’ democracy.

The final agreement contained many improvements, including wage increases of up to 66 percent along with improved parental leave, health care benefits, and childcare subsidies.

Challenges of the Open-Ended Strike

The NTEU is — for now — a minority union at all Australian universities, a reality which imposes serious constraints on workers. However, minority union status ought not to be an obstacle to organizing toward mass open-ended strike action. Once they were going, the open-ended strikes at UC and Michigan attracted many new members and activated existing passive members.

Strike funds have been another barrier to industrial action at Australian universities. Most workers are only able to participate in longer actions if they can receive compensation for lost wages via a strike fund. Like most unions, the NTEU maintains such a fund — and being able to access it would massively aid an open-ended strike. That said, strike fund access is necessary but not sufficient for organizing effective industrial action. Rank-and-file members first need to argue for the efficacy of open-ended action and organize themselves to take it.

Expanding union membership would, of course, also help to make industrial action more impactful and grow the strike fund. But membership growth cannot be considered in a vacuum. It is itself one possible benefit of a more militant strategy. Transformative demands — for example, an end to casualization, substantial pay rises, and minimum research allocations for all academic staff — attract and inspire new union members. And so do tactics that are credible for winning those demands.

At the same time, however, there are unique challenges associated with indefinite strikes. The lack of an end date is a powerful weapon against management — but it can also be a real source of anxiety for workers themselves. Indeed, this is one of the key lessons from strikes overseas. And there can be other challenges that are more difficult to foresee, involving genuine disagreements between members over strategy and goals.

Overcoming this requires strikers to continuously assess management’s response to the strategy, while also maintaining space for critical self-reflection and open communication about people’s capacity for action. This can only come about through bottom-up, rank-and-file organizing work.

Rank-and-File Organizing Builds Power

During the final stages of the UC strike, as voting on the proposed agreement began, a number of union members voiced criticism of its contents. Many highlighted the failure to tie employee wages to housing costs, a key original demand among workers. Similarly, other workers, including international students, criticized the proposal for not abolishing nonresident supplemental tuition (NRST) fees, an extra cost imposed on all non–US resident graduate students, including those employed by UC.

As a result, almost 40 percent of members voted “no” Organizers at UC Santa Cruz — where the “no” vote was highest — attribute this to a widespread view among many members that more could be won.  The “no” vote thus signaled that workers were ready to fight for more and that they were invested in the indefinite strike as an effective tactic to do so.

This confidence and militancy was the result of durable rank-and-file organizing structures. And there have been important steps in this direction in Australia — for example, a similar infrastructure underpinned the recent strikes at Melbourne University. During the campaign against wage theft that preceded the 2023 strikes, union delegates built deep networks, enabling them to stay in constant contact with their colleagues and to map their areas of work. The strikes drew on and expanded these networks.

At the same time, this organizing work was informed by concrete strategic thinking. To orient the campaign, union organizers related each issue back to a central question: What industrial tactics will effectively shift management at the negotiating table?

This approach was the key to achieving two week-long strikes at Melbourne University, an unprecedented achievement for the sector. But because they were time-bound, these actions were still more symbolic than disruptive.

Nevertheless, the campaign at Melbourne created the preconditions for more effective industrial actions in the future. It is time to build on this work. Unionists in higher education must move beyond symbolic actions and embrace open-ended strikes that can improve the university for all workers.