Precarious notes #1: 6 comments on the university and the dispute at USyd

1. From the formal level of dispute to the submerged politics of work at the university

The industrial dispute at the University of Sydney currently represents one of the key conflicts involving higher education and the education economy more broadly in Australia. The acuteness of the antagonism at USyd is growing increasingly sharp. Over the past 24 months university management have made a series of decisions that have made university workers angry and lose trust. For example the handling of the library restructures since early 2011, the announcement of 350 job cuts across general and academic staff in late 2011 – early 2012, and most recently the approach to the enterprise agreement has created sharp antagonism leading into the bargaining of the enterprise agreement. A recent survey conducted by the university shows that more than 75% of respondents have no faith in the university management.[i] All of this represents good reason to be pissed off, and demonstrates its actuality. Yet it would be a mistake to think that all this anger is simply funnelled through the enterprise agreement, or that reaching even a favourable agreement will be able to resolve this anger. Whilst the dispute now is ostensibly focussed on the details of the enterprise agreement, beneath these formal dimensions there is a submerged world of the daily politics of work that is in fact the key terrain animating the antagonism.

Conversations in workplaces, meetings and on the picket lines provide the greatest insight into what is going on. These conversations uncover another world of the politics of work, where the daily compression of working life is creating growing anger and disillusion.[ii] The cutting of staff, growing overtime, general intensification of work and ongoing casualisation define the negative dimension of this submerged world of work. The atomisation, isolation, competitiveness and stress that result from the squeeze on work are a recurrent theme in these conversations. The very real lack of a future that many people, particularly young workers, see within the university is a further expression of this compression of one’s life within the confines of the demands of the university. The frequency with which the idea of leaving the university is expressed is telling. This is all playing out across the conditions of academic and general staff, and this is the real substance of the antagonisms that define university life.

It is quite clear that even at this negative level, the interests of workers and students at the university are in this sense in excess of the enterprise agreement. This excess should lead us to consider what there is already, and what more will need to happen, beyond the framework of the agreement. It is worth noting that many of the issues confronted on the daily level will not be addressed in the enterprise agreement. For this reason it is important to insist, particularly if we want to continue developing organisation and critique beyond the bargaining period, that this submerged politics of work is in fact the pivotal terrain that we need to understand and act from. Making this argument does not mean to undermine the dispute thus far in terms of its development around the enterprise agreement, but rather it is to insist that pushing further the politics that have bubbled to the surface of university life over the past two years requires that we continually create a political horizon beyond the formal level of the dispute.

In a number of respects this is already beginning to take some form. The fact that these conversations are happening immediately between workers and students themselves is one indication in itself. The move towards on the ground and bottom-up organising at a departmental and workshop level is a necessary and welcome tendency. Beyond this, the degree of collective autonomous organisation that is taking place by various groups of students and workers is creating a vibrancy, dynamism and longer-term perspective that is necessary. Each of these factors should not be overstated, but they do show that in spite of the negative dimension of university life, a collective political force is growing.

2. The materiality of the university and the problem of nostalgia

The above is directly relevant to how we understand the university – that is USyd and the university institution more generally. The image of the university of the past as an uncorrupted institution of learning, untouched by the social relations that define it, was always out of step with its realities, and is today an idea impossible to entertain for even a moment, and yet the nostalgia for this image remains. And whilst a growing awareness of the rearrangements of the organisation of work as well as the commodification of education is evident, the political and organisational implications of this remain less clear. To a significant degree, the responses to the question of how to organise within the university remain in the shadow cast by the above nostalgia. That is, even when the conditions of the university are met more or less soberly, the political orientation swings back to an idealised past that at best was based upon a different composition of university labour, namely when it was possible to find an ongoing job. However, it is clear now this cannot be maintained, that the organisation of work and the product of the university is precisely of the world of capital.

The main limit of the image of nostalgia creates is that it is out of step with the current and developing class composition of the university, and it is basically an idea of the tenured professor’s university. In this sense it is a horizon of political possibility and desirability that has little to nothing to do with the overall position of the university now, nor with the conditions of the vast majority of workers at the university. The problem then, is to begin from the actual materiality of the university, and to pose political and organisational questions firmly on this terrain, to resist the pull of nostalgia.

Doing so is a substantial task, much of which is beyond the scope of these comments. To briefly outline what this might involve, it would be necessary to consider at the very least the place of education in the overall economy; to consider what the primary outputs of research are; the shifting role of teaching within the university; the relationship between students, work and debt; the relationship between the university, the border, visas and migration, and so on. These issues would require a political response adequate to their specificity and how they function as an assemblage – for example, as has been pointed out by others, asking the question of how to subvert the role of the university as an institution complicit with border policing.

More immediate to the purpose of these comments is perhaps the impacts of the division of labour within the university. This is a question that needs to be taken up organisationally and politically. The most obvious general division is between general and academic staff, which each has its own respective divisions. Without going into any detail here, one issue that is relevant to general and academic staff (not to mention the workers in cafes and shops on campus) is that of casualisation and precarious work. In terms of the organisation of labour at the university, and the relationship between workers and the university, this is the pivotal and dominant question. It is this relationship that defines much of the materiality of the contemporary university.

The problem of precarity, most clearly manifest in casual work across the tertiary sector, is a very real one. Indeed it has been for some time now. As one example, workers employed on casual or fixed term contracts do over half of teaching work, and increasingly make up the numbers of library and IT services. It is a welcome development that the conversation around this issue has been taken up within the official perspective of the unions, but the lateness with which they have arrived at the conversation is not without consequences. Namely, ongoing inabilities to pose the problem clearly, and thus engage the organisational difficulties that arise therefrom effectively.

The temporality of casual and precarious work, the speed, and the precise yet blurry mechanisms that punctuate it, constitutes a particular arrangement of one’s life that is always in some sense a condition of working.[iii] This complicates the question of organisation, and is markedly distinct from the condition of established academics. Indeed, the layer of workers who constitute established academics is itself dwindling. Confronting this fact is the least that needs to happen. The real question and moment of conflict emerges from how young, casual workers understand their own condition and what they want to do about it. It is certain that on minor levels responses to this are already in motion, and have been for some time. Finding various circuits to amplify this process, defined by the workers themselves might be the best way to ask the organisational question.

3. Edu-factory and/or the service-university

There have been a number of initiatives that seek to come to terms with the position of the university in contemporary capitalism. The critique of the university as edu-factory is one of the more interesting of these, beginning from the hypothesis that ‘as was the factory, so now is the university’. For the theorists of the edu-factory the university is a key site of antagonism between labour and capital, ‘where the ownership of knowledge, the reproduction of the labour force, and the creation of social and cultural stratifications are all at stake’.[iv] Recent conferences organised by students in Canberra and Sydney have taken up this term, and used it as a lens to critique the university as they experience it today.

Given the emphasis on education and knowledge economies today for economic competitiveness and accumulation, the edu-factory is not really a controversial thesis. As a conceptual lens it is useful for understanding and critiquing a series of metrics to which labour at the university is subject. Regardless of where one works within the university, systems of measurement will be a familiar dynamic that sets various paces to your work. Such metrics form a kind of punctuation to work that resonates with the idea of standardised, homogenous factory work.

Nonetheless, the edu-factory and the image the factory conjures up is somewhat out of step with the non-linear, permanently working condition that defines so much university labour.  In this sense, university labour is also very much a form service work, with the often blurry and indistinct boundary between work and non-work time, and a complicated relationship to its object of production.[v] The service-university is evident in various ways. From the proliferation of cafes, kitchens, and retail around universities, to the services that keep libraries and IT labs running, to academic work and the content and form of teaching, a service dynamic is apparent as a defining element of university labour.

At various levels these questions complicate the image of industrial activity on campus.

4. Politics on the picket lines and the question of militancy

The picket lines, functioning for now as the most visible and collective moment of antagonism, bring all of the above issues and tensions together. The pickets are thus a complex political space, which bring into contact the various perspectives, interests and practices of different workers, students and groups. As such, the pickets have been a space of political composition that have helped to circulate stories and experience, as well as a place where various tensions have found their clearest expression.

There are many political perspectives, interests and groups involved in the pickets and the campaign more broadly. Each of these often have their own perspective on the best way to organise the pickets, make decisions, and on the overall goals of the campaign. One of the clearest questions that has arisen is that of who should be able to make decisions about the conduct of the pickets. At one level there is the picket protocol that is the official position on how union members should organise the pickets. There are a number of workers and picket marshals that argue that this is the final word, and that it should be followed strictly. Others see the protocol more as a field within which, depending on circumstances, various decisions and actions can be justified. Still others have argued that the picket lines themselves should be able to decide how they organise themselves, and what actions they take. Very useful, if at times heated, debate about these questions has occurred across most of the strike days. In fact, each of these perspectives is of greater or lesser influence on different picket lines. However, it is important to emphasise the importance of the latter perspective, which sees the picket line as a political space in its own terms that is organised by the participants on it. This perspective allows those who are participating to make meaningful and active decisions about the form and content of the politics of the dispute. This perspective helps to build the democratic organisational capacities of the workers and students involved.

One point that has been heard raised in conversation is that of the degree of a stake that participants in the pickets have in the outcome of the dispute. From this perspective if staff members think that diverging from picket protocol will damage the campaign and undermine the agreement with management then this interest should be respected over those of other participants who diverge from the strict adherence to the protocol, or who may not work at the university, as those who do not work at university have nothing to directly lose in this. However, it is not the case that there is agreement within the university staff that sticking to picket protocol is the most tactical, strategic or desirable decision to make. Many workers have been involved in pickets that have held the picket lines when they have tried to be closed by police. Moreover, many staff have been involved in debates with union marshals and other workers on the picket lines and made arguments that those on the picket should be the ones to make the decisions about what tactics they use. It is also clear that in a number of cases it is only through the process of resisting the breaking of the picket lines that the pickets have managed to effectively close the entrance being picketed.

There are good reasons to be positive about the debates, decisions and development of the pickets, including the decisions to hold the lines against the police. At the same time, it is necessary to be cautious in overstating the significance of this. Whilst an accumulation of political experience and confidence is evident on the picket lines, it is also unclear as yet whether the growing antagonism on the pickets is an expression of the overall direction of a growing number of participants and reflective of the strength of the campaign, or rather indicative of growing polarisation between participants. Polarisation can be important, and can open up greater political space, but it can also close down communication and debate when it is precisely more communication and debate that needs to happen. Awareness of this latter point is necessary for maintaining a strong campaign immediately, as well as for ongoing organising beyond the formal dispute.

The question of militancy has also recurred throughout the conversations at the pickets and about them. The question of militancy is in some respects a deceptively simple one. That is, a common argument is that if a picket line holds against the demands to move and let a car through, then this is a more militant picket than one that does not make this decision. On some level, there is truth in this, and for my part, if a picket line decides it wants to hold the line then that is what it should do. Of course, there is still another question here about decision-making – and there is no reason to assume at the outset that just because a picket decided to hold that the decision was made democratically. However, it is also useful to have an understanding of militancy that is not simply defined by willingness for physical conflict. As noted above, there is no necessary reason to assume that just because a picket line held that therefore the campaign is stronger – more needs to happen for this to be the case. At the same time, there are any number of minor shifts that can take place that indicate a growing radicalisation than does the amount of physical conflict with the police.

5. Cops, policing and edu-capital

A further aspect to the dispute that has received a lot of attention has been the policing of the picket lines. The police tactics and the arrests are definitely worthy of condemnation. Further, the fury and contempt that people feel for the police is legitimate and understandable. But we might gain something if we focus not on the particular dispositions of individual cops, but rather place the actions of the police in the context of the particular dispute underway at the university of Sydney, and the broader processes of restructuring education. That is, the use of repressive force in this context is better explained not through the poor moral fibre of Spence nor the malevolence of individual cops, but rather by acknowledging that the dispute here is but one aspect of a deeper conflict. The process of restructuring that is playing out, and dynamics and contradictory interests that are expressed through it, at some level always involve the use of force, and in this instance the repressive force of the state is necessary to secure the interests of the functionaries of capital.

On the other hand, there is very good reason to take the trauma, anxiety and fear that the police have caused seriously. As others have noted, the actions of the police do have a real impact on people’s ability to maintain participation in these forms of conflict. Perhaps one way to acknowledge this, and to do something with it, is to valorise the many other ways of acting and participating in this struggle that are not defined by physical confrontation with the police. The effectiveness of any political activity is always dependent on a variety of activities coming together coherently and meaningfully.

6. Where next?

This is now the key question. There are two levels to the response to this question, but these are related. One remains within the framework of the enterprise agreement and the specific campaign targeting this. The second is that of ongoing organising beyond the current dispute, involving the development of infrastructures of collective, bottom-up, democratic organisation, and connecting these together.[vi]

The pickets and strikes have been effective so far, and the level of activity on campus shows a lot of potential. In terms of the immediate dispute, the means by which to escalate the campaign is a key one. The strike, at the very least for academic staff, is geared towards the university as teaching institution. This is evident to the degree that whilst the strike shuts down campus and classes, the rhythm of research work is not effectively interrupted by such activity. This is not to undermine the effectiveness of the strike activity so far, but merely to be realistic about what strikes achieve in a place like the university, and to challenge us to think harder about what other options there are. In some respects this comes back to the question of the edu-factory and the service-university – in the factory a strike had a more total effect on production, but between the edu-factory and the service-university, it has perhaps only partial effect.

Other options that have been raised include work bans, withholding of marks and other such activity. These options also do not address the relationship of our labour time to the process of research and the role of this in the university. On another level, and this came up in a conversation on the picket line, it is not clear that these options would be as effective as a strike, and may possibly undermine the strike action. These are difficult questions to answer.

Perhaps one way of addressing the relationship of research to the university, and the difficulty of separating this work from the valorisation of the university, is to develop counter and co-research spaces that explicitly address the critique of the university.[vii] Such co-research spaces with a political focus can be simultaneously at the edge of the university, as well as aimed against it. Further, such spaces could break down the hierarchies of who the “thinkers” of the university are, and begin to draw connections between academic staff, general staff and students and create a common political space of conversation, research and action. To be clear, such research would not replicate academic research, but develop common relationships between those involved. If it is so difficult to subvert the relationship between research labour from the interests of the university, then perhaps the best option is to develop counter spaces that delink our activity from the university as capital, and break down the divisions of labour imposed by the university.

On the second level of the question of where next, the clear need is for the development of participatory spaces from which staff and students can organise themselves directly, and develop decision making power around the immediate issues they face.

by mark g

[i] These figure have been cited, though I don’t yet have the original reference: Change is handled well in the University of Sydney (22%)
There is good communication across all sections of the University of Sydney (23%)
The University of Sydney is good at learning from its mistakes and successes (25%)
The Senior Executive Group listen to other staff (26%)
The way the University of Sydney is run has improved over the last year (27%)
Knowledge and information are shared throughout the University of Sydney (27%)

And see this

[iv] Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis, ‘Notes on the edu-factory and cognitive capitalism’

[v] For a more extended and developed discussion of ideas concerning a service university, debt and indentured labour see Angela Mitropoulos’

[vii] This is drawing from practices within Italian autonomist marxism, and recent projects such as the colectivo situaciones eg

just saw this too

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12 Responses to Precarious notes #1: 6 comments on the university and the dispute at USyd

  1. trolly mctrollington says:

    FYI the phase one report of the staff survey can be downloaded here: or from behind the staff restricted university intranet.

  2. Debbie says:

    …”beneath these formal dimensions there is a submerged world of the daily politics of work that is in fact the key terrain animating the antagonism.” Great work Mark, and this is where it is at: the critique of everyday life is key to transformation.

  3. wsasydney says:

    thanks trolly, if i had been paying attention to the staff intranet i might have seen that for myself, but as usual, i am distracted.
    thanks for the comment Debbie.

  4. Thanks so much for this, Mark. I’d like to hear more about the proposal addressing the place of research in the university…

  5. Pingback: Solidarizar* – terra firma

  6. A real pleasure to read this!! Service university rather than edufactory, so useful.

    I especially appreciate your thoughts on the cops. We need to resist them. It is not the only resistance in town. So much more useful to think of them as forces necessary to restructuring, yes indeed. (is it time for a Tranny Cops redux?)

    I have a clarification question to ask you/readers:

    “work bans, withholding of marks and other such activity. These options also do not address the relationship of our labour time to the process of research and the role of this in the university. On another level, and this came up in a conversation on the picket line, it is not clear that these options would be as effective as a strike, and may possibly undermine the strike action.”

    How exactly could these options undermine the strike action and/or not address the relationship of our labour time to the process of research? (excuse my slow brain workings)

    Also – I feel a teach-in and/or free university coming on…..?


  7. wsasydney says:


    sorry for delay in replying had a busy week.

    I suppose the reason the withholding marks etc might not do much in terms of research based work is that it is still based around teaching. So whilst these could be useful things to do, they may not address the difficulties faced around research oriented forms of work. Perhaps there are ways that work bans could have a useful impact on research based work (maybe more so outside of the humanities and arts?), i am not sure – totally open to hearing suggestions.

    In terms of why or how these could undermine or not be as effective as a strike, I should have been clearer that this was an argument I heard, not one I have made myself as such. I think the argument is basically that in the first place a strike has more overall impact on the functioning of the university. Secondly that at this stage switching to withholding marks etc might be a step back from strikes. Beyond this I think the argument was that carrying out these things all at once might lead to some people participating in one form of activity and not others, and so mutually undermining the other. It is not clear in my opinion that this latter would be the case, I think we could have carried out more than one form of activity over the same period of time.

    In terms of the proposal around counter research project as a part of creating a political project, as well as breaking with academic research, I am taking some cues here from the workers inquiry and coresearch approach often associated with operaismo and autonomist marxism. In any case I might try to elaborate on this more later, but to be brief now, I think there is perhaps more scope for this sort of thing at the university now, given the increased level of activity (even though this wouldn’t be a pre-requisite for the suggestion). It could be possible, for example, to begin in areas where there is some semblance of on the ground organising already happening (however modest this might be) at the departmental or shopfloor level, or across the casuals. Those involved these workplaces/situations could begin to open a conversation across these areas, workers in each of these points open an inquiry into specific conditions of the respective area, draw these together and move from there into organisational type questions, (whilst acknowledging that any co-research project is in itself already an organisational question). I suppose the key points would be that the process is a collective and participatory one, and that the goal is not to produce a research object as such, but to contribute to the development political composition in the university, and so feed back into questions of organisation, from the bottom up. This might help to take up and act upon some of the issues raised in the Common Threads videos, or what above is spoken about as the submerged politics of work. There are lots of questions about what form this could all take. Anyway, sorry, that is properly vague and obscure… Still, something we can talk about more, here or elsewhere.


  8. Hmm.


    Thanks for your thoughts in reply, that all makes sense. And yes we will talk more!

  9. wsasydney says:

    I think some of what is in here is interesting, including the question “what is your strike?” As they say in here: “Let us explain ourselves. A strike is always an appeal to re-situate the identity of the worker in the center. But for those of us who have a twisted sense of being workers (the care-workers, sex-workers, social-workers, precarious freelancers – in translation, design, journalism, research – the teachers, the cleaners, the pizza delivery-students, the vagabonds and wanderers through an ever more pauperized labor market) the notion of a strike never ceases to be a bit of a mystery. We could always do what the Workers – with a capital W- do, overlooking the fact that from our ‘non-typical’ (though ever more common) position in the economy-network crossing our arms for a few hours (or even 24) does not necessarily mean to stop the world or to detain production. Or we could take the practice of the strike seriously and take it on as a challenge. We can ask: “what is your strike?”” … and further along: “First procedure: the drift…Second procedure: recording and narration…Third procedure: the workshop and the assembly.”
    I don’t think we can easily, or in any sense, transpose experiences directly, but i think some of what the precarias do is asking the better questions.

  10. waywardwobbly says:

    Reblogged this on waywardwobbly and commented:
    some of my reflections on the dispute at USyd, where i work and study…

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