Why We Need a New NTEU


Democratic structures and a democratic culture are central components of a vibrant and active union. However, the democratic structures and practices of our union are weak. Decisions made by democratic bodies (Branch Committees, members’ meetings, caucuses and even Division and National Councils) are frequently overridden or ignored. Uncontested elections - even for the most important roles - are the expected norm (and some members who have decided to run against incumbents have even been harassed by senior officials in an effort to make them step down). Voter turnout in the few elections we do have is worryingly low. We need members to see that their voices and participation matter, and we need members to get involved in representative bodies at all levels of the union. We need to normalise contested elections, and prospective leaders coming from the rank-and-file membership, so that prospective leaders have to campaign for positions, talk with workers and have their ideas tested.


A union is nothing without its members. This seems to have been forgotten by the current leadership of the NTEU, with the release of a ‘3 year growth strategy’ that mainly mentions members as the way to pay the increasing costs of staff salaries. Instead, the membership is the union - it is our collective will, our effort, and our energy that gives us the power to win. Too often, the NTEU defaults to an advocacy model of unionism, where senior officials write every policy and make every decision. The occasional handpicked member may be featured as the face of a campaign, but members themselves will have little to no say in developing what the campaign is pushing for, or how it is undertaken. Instead, we should fight for member-based campaigning – an organising model of unionism – where goals, campaigns and strategies come from and are driven by the membership.


Every decision we make as a union should be a decision we can be proud of. Every time we train, brainstorm, deliberate on an issue or resolve a conflict is an opportunity to showcase the participatory processes of our unionism, both to members and prospective members. We need to fight the culture of secrecy with which the NTEU often operates, where even something as basic as inviting members to Branch Committee meetings is rare and the right to observe National and Divisional Councils is blocked. We should make members welcome at all levels of decision making, and wherever possible we should invite non-members to be present in union meetings so they can experience what being union feels like. We should be open and welcome the input of the membership in all our internal deliberations, and accept their criticism where we misstep. We should be proud to showcase the way we make decisions and we should model collectivism, participation, and transparency as part of the training and education process of our members.


Sometimes, things go wrong. Leaders mess up, human error occurs, and sometimes members, officials and staff treat others in ways that aren’t ideal or even OK. This ranges from small administrative errors that frustrate or slow down organising to bullying and harassment that victimise people and tear at the very core of our union. We need to be accountable at all levels within the union. When things go wrong, we need robust, transparent accountability procedures in place that treat everyone fairly, do not show favoritism to the powerful, and ensure that we stick with our principles. It is only through clear accountability that we can build the trust needed for collective action. Unfortunately, our current union has a poor culture of accountability and very little capacity for member concerns to be addressed or staff safety to be upheld. This must change, and it must change now.


Good unionism is about building relationships, and building relationships rests on trust. We need to be frank about the current crisis of trust in the NTEU, which manifests as member distrust of senior officials and senior official distrust of members. This is most shamefully evidenced in the current practice of denying delegates access to the names and contact details of members in their work area - a practice which runs in violation of our union’s own policies. It should go without saying that we cannot build a powerful, self-confident and strike-ready workforce when delegates are being reminded every day that they are not trusted to be given the basic tools needed to organise their fellow workers.


Unions exist because workers come together as a collective force to stand against the exploitative power of the bosses. Every decision, every practice, every move we make, every day, should be focused towards building and exercising our collective power. This power doesn’t come from cosy chats with Vice Chancellors; it doesn’t come from expensive lawyers; it doesn’t come from high-salaried officials. Our power comes from the people in our union and our ability to build toward a shared purpose and unbreakable solidarity. It’s towards power that we should always be oriented as a union. The state of the tertiary sector depends on it.