Cathy Rytmeister

About this interview

Cathy Rytmeister reflects on her time serving on the national policy committees of the NTEU (National Tertiary Education Union) and the origins of her activism.

Transcript: Cathy Rytmeister interview.

Facilitator:             Starting at the very beginning, as they say, when did you first get involved in the union, or a union?

Interviewee:             A union. It would be when I was working in the post office. I was working for Australia Post in - god, when would it have been? Probably about '82, '81 or two. I joined the union because that’s what you do. I was a delegate. I became a delegate after a while. I was only working part time initially, and I ended up working full time for a period after I dropped out of uni and before I went back, even when I went back.

                                 I eventually became a delegate. I used to go to the meetings every - I can't remember when they were - every couple of weeks maybe, or every month. I can't remember. I'd just report back to people. They'd come and ask me about - most of the queries back then were about their pay being right and penalty rates and whether they got their meal allowances and stuff like that.

Facilitator:                Were people mostly full time employees?

Interviewee:             Yeah, back then, yeah. It's almost all casualised now, I believe, but we were posties. I worked in a few different jobs. I delivered telegrams. I sorted mail, and then I worked as a postie. I also worked on the counter for a while, so yeah, I had a few jobs.

Facilitator:                You said you joined the union - that’s just what you did. When you say that’s just what you did, was that an organisational characteristic or a family characteristic?

Interviewee:             No, it was - I think it - no, it was values based. It was a family thing. My parents weren’t unionists. My father was a professional engineer, so they didn’t - they had a professional association, but not really a union. He was very pro-union, pro-union, pro-Labor, very progressive socially. They were - taught us a lot of stuff about, I guess, social justice and the way the world works, lots of critical thinking and debate and all that kind of thing.

                                 Dad was a bit of an activist. He was - he got involved with the - when I went to school he got involved with the P&C. He ended up being chairman of the local Defence of Government Schools branch, the party, in the '70s, so I had quite political experiences early on from that. I knew there was this world where people did these things. He was just always pro-union.

                                 When I went to uni and I was studying - I went to the Institute of Technology, which is now UTS of course. I studied all the progressive subjects with all the ratbags in communications. I dropped out of that course because I really wasn’t mature enough to do it, but I got a lot out of it, a lot of political reading and all that kind of thing. It was just a natural - I mean I just was always pro-union, I guess, because that’s what I grew up with. I could see why. You had to be [laughs]. It wasn’t just - it wasn’t without thought. I can see why you had to be.

Facilitator:                What were - in that role - that’s pre the academic world - in that role were there any particularly important or significant disputes or issues?

Interviewee:             Oh yeah. Well, in - the big thing in the Postal Workers Union was that it was basically controlled by the mail centres. It was pretty - I think it was pretty corrupt, looking back. The people in the post offices local post offices always felt a bit - there was conflict between people in the mail centres and people in the offices because in the post offices themselves there was a lot of customer service culture - which is good. It's what you want in your post office, right?

                                 That clashed a bit with people doing what they [in the post offices] thought of as all the mail sorting - the workers in the mail centres - because they were big centres with lots of employees - and they would have strikes just before Christmas and things like that. Of course they would. I mean now I think - yeah. I mean now we'd have a different way of explaining that to people, but back then part of that was an embedded racism too because a lot of the people in the mail centres were Vietnamese migrants. They often went and worked in the mail centres.

                                 There was a bit of that - people didn’t necessarily say it straight out, but it was look, here's where all the nice white people working in the post offices and here are these people coming and telling us we have to go on strike or whatever. We don’t want to do that. That was a big conflict. There were strikes around Christmas.

                                 We used to do - before I knew better we would do what they call bypassing. They send mail out from the mail centres to be sorted in the suburban offices, which was just scabbing really. At the time you did not - that was very early in - I didn’t - I understood unionism as an idea - and a good thing - but I didn’t understand the real politics of it. I got into that.

                                 That was a bit of an eye opener because I had to - we had to really think about that. I remember speaking at a big mass meeting where I said look, we should be supporting the mail centre workers because the time might come when we need their support for something, where we want our conditions to be - everyone was on awards then. This was pre-bargaining. The only bargaining that happened was by the union over an award.

                                 These were usually award cases, all to do with penalty rates and things like that, and shifts. I think there was a big dispute over the - over working five over seven rosters or something. I can't remember. It's over 30 years ago now [laughs]. Anyway, it was - there were some big fights. That just helped - my awareness and understanding of that grew over time.

                                 There were - the union was pretty - it was a bit of cartel. There were people in charge. They would have been - they were ALP, part of all that wheeling and dealing. One of the things that I really am grateful for, thankful for, with the NTEU is that it's not an [ALP] affiliated union, because I think it keeps it much cleaner, much cleaner. That’s probably jumping the gun a bit [laughs].

Facilitator:                No, no, that’s fine. I can see how you would get there.

Interviewee:             I went to a couple of - I got involved with a couple of women's meetings. They would - I had a bit of mentoring where I remember being ushered into a room after a meeting with a couple of the big [union] bosses and them looking at me seriously and saying oh, we need a delegate for the women's whatever, we thought you'd be good for it. So I did that for a little while.

Facilitator:                Within the union structure?

Interviewee:             Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was so male dominated. They were - to their credit they were trying to get more women involved. The women - I have to say some of the women who were delegates in some of the post offices were tough as anything. They were great. They were really good.

Facilitator:                Was there a bit of a network of them, are you saying?

Interviewee:             Yeah, there was a bit, but it wasn’t really - yeah. I mean in those days it wasn’t - I don’t know. It wasn’t so organised and it was very much run by the people who ran the union. They did have that space for women, but I didn’t really - I networked more through the people I knew because I moved around a few different offices. That was more of a network for me.

Facilitator:                That was your level of involvement when you worked for…

Interviewee:             Australia Post, yeah.

Facilitator:                Then what did you do?

Interviewee:             I went back to uni. I was studying. There were a couple of good disputes on while I was studying [laughs]. I always turned out to support the union, supported the strikes and things like that. I was on picket lines and things. When I started working for the university I didn’t join the union at first because I was just doing part time - not even part time, casual, research assistant stuff and a bit of marking.

                                 Back then it didn’t - it wasn’t a thing to get casuals to join, but now it's a big thing. There's still argument about it. Now we're so much more aware of it, but back then casuals were genuinely casual. Nobody asked - nobody thought maybe casuals should join the union. Then I got a part time job. They were stuffing around with my pay. This is when I went to - I asked Wendy McMurdo for help because she was at Macquarie.

                                 She went and talked to the - we went to a meeting and she sorted this stuff out for me, even though I wasn’t a member, because she was a [HAREA] delegate at the time. She actually said to me - because I said oh, I want to join. She said oh, don’t join HAREA, she said, we're trying to get everyone into the NTEU. That was - that would have been - oh, that would have probably been '94 or something like that, '95, whatever.

                                 I guess I hadn't - at that - in those days, I think - this is before - it must have been before the - when was the award restructuring? It would have been after the amalgamations when everything went national. I'm just trying to think when the college academics came in. There was a shift - casual markers weren’t employed as academic staff, from memory. You were general staff, I think. I wasn’t - I didn’t have an academic role until I started tutoring, which was around that time. Initially, I did a bit at Macquarie and also at Sydney Uni, or Cumberland College, which became Sydney Uni.

                                 It was around that - it was a bit after the - no, let me think. I was doing marking. I must have been doing marking in 1990 and '91 because I had my daughter in '91 and I remember trying to shift the work around her. It's all a bit - I think it was very casual work though. My staff number starts with 89, so I must have been doing something from 1989, but I think it was just a bit of…

Facilitator:                Here and there.

Interviewee:             …casual research work and stuff like that. Isn't it funny? I just don’t remember very well.

Facilitator:                What marked your point of - so you had…

Interviewee:             Well, after Wendy had [done] and they'd worked out this stuff - because I was - the problem was that I was doing both general stuff and academic. I was tutoring and I was a research assistant. Now no-one thinks twice about that. Back then it was oh, my god, how can you cross this boundary. I think it was because there was this shift in the grades and the classifications and things like that.

                                 Anyway, I joined the NTEU as soon as I could. That was as a tutor. I joined as an academic, even - because the general staff weren’t covered [by the NTEU]. We didn’t have that coverage. Then we started to join general staff up as agency members. I don’t know if you remember that.

Facilitator:                No.

Interviewee:             Because HAREA left. HAREA vacated. Then there was the NTEU and the CPSU. The CPSU claimed coverage of all general staff, even though they didn’t have the rules either. They covered library staff. That was a hangover from when general staff were more public servants and things like that.

                                 The NTEU said no, we want to cover general staff. Then there was that - that battle went on for a few years, and that’s - we're still seeing that play out today, the rancour from that. I joined the NTEU and just thought I'd hang in and wait until they covered the rest of my job. By that time I was tutoring probably about - oh, about three quarters of my job was tutoring.

Facilitator:                Then something happened and you were a member while you were tutoring, and then…

Interviewee:             Well, I was - the president of the union at the time - or - he was either president or vice-president at the time. I think he was president at the time - was John Corbett. He taught - he was a professor in maths. He had taught me and we'd become quite good friends. He was very - he was one of those who - he and his partner, Pat, are both now life members. They'd done that first round of bargaining, which was very fraught. No-one had ever done it before. It was all new. Carolyn was involved in that, and Pat and John.

                                 Anyway, I just - two of my teachers in maths actually - John and another guy, Ron, who was the secretary of the branch - they were good lefties in maths. They still are [laughs]. They're great. I was doing a maths degree. They really just started - I just got involved by being with them and enjoying the politics. I enjoyed the campaigning. I got on board with the campaigning. I was involved in some student politics as well. I had stood as a candidate for the Labor Party in 1988, so I was pretty into politics. I was right into it.

                                 Then I think the next round of bargaining came up. I went to - they said oh, you should come because you're early career and casual and all this, you should come to the bargaining, and I came. I think I went to some preparatory meetings they had. There was one woman there who was giving me the shits [laughs]. I decided that I didn’t want her speaking for me, so I decided - so I said oh, I think I'm going to have to join this bargaining team, because I disagreed with just about everything she said. She was really management, I think.

                                 Anyway, I just - you know what bargaining teams are like. They suck up anybody who even looks marginally awake [laughs]. If you look slightly - if you raise an eyebrow you're on the team [laughs].

Facilitator:                Exactly! Scratch your head and you’re on.

Interviewee:             That’s right. It just went on from there. I got involved in the women's caucus and women's action committees. I was on that for [everything]. I can send you my NTEU record. When [Judy] said oh, she's been on everything - I have [laughs].

                                 When you go and look at my record, there's just this whole list of stuff. I was assistant secretary for a term when - I was assistant secretary academic staff. I did a lot of stuff with WAC in those days. We went out and did the Train the Trainer stuff. We did a lot of organising, travelled round the state delivering workshops and recruiting a lot - a lot of the women who are active today came to us through those workshops. It was amazing. It was a really good couple of years.

                                 So I just - I gradually - I think I became vice president. I joined the branch committee. I was sort of co-opted, and then we had elections and I was actually on it, went to national council. I think I've got about a dozen national councils under my belt, something like that, I think. I don’t know. I can't remember [laughs]. When you look at the list you'll see.

                                 Then I was branch president for six years. That - I stopped doing that, not because I didn’t like it - I actually loved it, although I was getting a little bit burnt out. I actually miss it, but I also don’t think it's good for the union for people to stay too long, because when people start saying how could we ever replace you, who could fill your shoes, no-one could fill your shoes, that’s the warning sign.

                                 You’ve got to get out before you start thinking that, because once you start thinking that you're really on the downward slide [laughs]. You’ve got to just get out when - and walk away from it because, otherwise, people start to think no-one else can do it, and it's not true. They think they’ve got to do what you do, but they don’t. They’ve only got to do what you did when you first started. Lots of people can do that [laughs].

Facilitator:                What would you - I mean that’s quite…

Interviewee:             That’s my potted history [laughs].

Facilitator:                …[unclear] works really. What - if you had to identify key moments for you across those various activities and functions and roles and - what were the most significant?

Interviewee:             There was - we did some good things networking women across the state. Outside the Women's Conference - which I used to go - run every year then - we had this idea that we would get together with the women of neighbouring states. We had two - this was during my time as assistant secretary, I think. Either assistant secretary or WAC rep, or both, because I did both for a while.

                                 We had two what we called border incidents: one where we went down to Charles Sturt [Uni] down in Albury, and met up with the women who came up from Victoria; although Victoria chucked a little sulky thing because they thought New South Wales was - I don’t know what they thought. Anyway, some people boycotted it, but we had a really good time. One of my great memories was that we won the seafood tray at this hub. We all…

Facilitator:                Ah, fantastic.

Interviewee:             They kept it in the cool room for us and we all had it for breakfast the next day. It was fantastic. That was one thing. The other border incident was up in Queensland, up at - it was actually in - it must have been in Coolangatta, or was it Tweed Heads? It might have been Tweed Heads. Is there a Southern Cross campus on the Tweed Heads?

Facilitator:                Yeah, maybe.

Interviewee:             I think it was up there. The Queensland women came down. We had terrible weather and lots of people were sick on the plane because there was a big cyclone. We went bugger it, we're going anyway. Our plane was cancelled and then we got the next - we got another one the next morning. Again, seafood features in this because we went to the fisher person's co-op for dinner. I've never eaten so much seafood at one sitting. It was just unbelievable.

                                 We had a really good gathering. We looked at policy and we ran some of the training workshops. Those two events, I think - because they were a bit of a new thing and people hadn't done it before. Outside Women's Conference different states hadn't really - the women hadn't got together, apart from national council, so that was a good thing.

                                 The real - I guess the really - the thing that I remember as being absolutely momentous - apart from great karaoke nights at Women's Conference - was the maternity leave campaign, the parental leave campaign.

Facilitator:                Can you talk a bit about that?

Interviewee:             Yeah. I did talk a bit about it in here, but it's - it was actually an exemplary democratic process. It came - it was actually before - I think before ACU made their big - ACU was the first to give women all this leave because, hey, Catholics should be having babies, I guess. It wasn’t anything to do with industrial. It was just the vice chancellor had this great idea.

                                 I think we started before that. We started saying we need to make the ILO standard and we need to have proper - better return to work provisions because more and more women were finding their careers were being set back by having children and having the time off. It wasn’t just the leave. It was a whole package of things. We wanted to up the leave because paid maternity leave was starting to be talked about generally for the workforce.

                                 We found out - we did the - the research showed that only something like 18 per cent of women had any paid leave at all - 82 per cent had none [laughs]. They could - yes, yes, great they got the 12 months off, but no paid time at all, not even the 12 weeks. We thought we in the public sector are in the lead. We need to lead again. So we went out there and pushed it.

                                 We ran it through by having - the women's caucuses had discussions about it. We took it to the Women's - we started drafting claims and things. Took it to the Women's Conference. Big discussion there, and came out with a recommendation for a claim for bargaining. This was just before we were - we were heading towards a bargaining conference and bargaining period.

                                 Then we ran campaigns. We ran campaigns all around the institutions. We had some - we did some great posters. We had [laughs] those fucking nappies [laughs]. I had this thing of nappies that we hung up. We'd string this line up and peg them up. They had written on it - I don’t know what it was, 36 weeks or something. I can't remember - 36 weeks' parental leave.

                                 We were going 14 maternity leave for women as a health and safety issue, as in you shouldn’t be pushed to go back to work before you're ready. Fourteen and then - was it 26? We were going for 40 weeks, I think, initially. Or was it? It might have been - anyway, I think it was 14 and - god, let me think.

                                 Oh no. Initially, we went for the full year, like ACU had. It must have been 14 plus 38. We had 14 plus 38 on these nappies. We had posters that said 14 plus 38 or the baby gets it, stuff like that [laughs]. It was really fun.

                                 We knew we weren’t going to get 14 plus 38, but the really interesting thing about this - which I think is probably most useful for you - well, in some ways - the really interesting thing was that we had to win it in the union first. Of course, there were lots of people in the union, men and women, who said oh, we'll never get that, no, that’s unreasonable, we're going to look stupid, we shouldn’t do it.

                                 There was just this great moment at the bargaining conference where [Graham] thought he'd be able to talk us all down with his relentless logic et cetera. We were determined. There weren’t that many of us there from the Women's Action Committee. I was a bit cranky because we had a staff member who was supposed to be supporting this campaign, but she hadn't really done the work.

                                 In those days - I think - I don’t know if we still get it, but - at bargaining conferences you probably do. We don’t get it at council. We had pages and pages of the staff profiles of all the universities. We had that - so I did this - almost back of the envelope, but it actually meant going through these things and looking at the staff profiles. You know how we usually take level C step one and level six step one as the average - you'd probably have to do seven now. I think it's gone up, but we used to take those as average figures. 

                                 I went through all the institutions and worked out - and got their rough proportion et cetera. I worked out the rough proportion of women in, say, level C and below. I mean yes, you do get some women in D and E who have babies, but just for argument's sake - and level seven and below. I worked out the salaries for the highest level available to C1 and six one. I was sitting there feverishly doing all this [laughs] with my calculator on my phone or something, or maybe on my computer. I can't remember what I had with me. Probably not even a computer.

                                 Anyway, we were doing all - adding all this up. It worked out that it would be something like 0.05 per cent of a university's budget and it would cost around - I think it was 19.2 – nineteen point two million dollars for the whole sector or something. At the very worst case women had a baby every two years or something like that. They had all these assumptions in it, but they were reasonable assumptions.

                                 Chris Holley said to me after - I got up and did this whole spiel about it and said this is what it would cost, it's peanuts. Divide that up among 40 universities, it's peanuts, it's 0.05 per cent of university budgets even if every woman had a baby. Anyway, Chris Holly [laughs], afterwards, said to me, “this is good” he said “I've never seen anyone get up and say 19.2 million bucks is peanuts. It's good.” …in that really quiet. Oh, you probably didn’t get that on there - in that really Holly manner that he had.

                                 We did the work. We did those calculations. I had other people giving me information all over the place. We put this together and we got it up there, and people started saying, well, yeah, if it's that small, why don’t we just claim it? We might not get the full - because we decided we'd go for the full thing as a mandatory settlement, even though we knew that we weren’t going to get it.

                                 We pressed it and pressed it and pressed it: no, it's got to be mandatory, we've got to do it, you can't - I got up and said I don’t want people to come back to me at the end of this bargaining round and say their union - I don’t want women coming back to Women's Conference and saying   couldn’t do as well for us as the Catholic bosses did at ACU?

Facilitator:                Nice

Interviewee:             Everyone went woo.


Interviewee:             How come the Catholic bosses could do better than our union can for women? How is that? It was pretty full on. Then we had this adjournment because Grahame could see people were going - they were wanting to do it. We had an adjournment, and all the women in the room got up and went to one side of the room, going blah, blah, blah, trying to plot how we were going to get this thing through.

                                 Some of the women were saying we'll never get this, our institution's broke. [Ann from] Northern Territory, saying we'd love to go for it but we're never going to win it, we can't - you can't set it as a mandatory, we're never going to do it. Anyway, we came back and there was lots of massive deal making. Carolyn was telling me to go and talk to Grahame. I was no, I'm not doing it [laughs].

                                 I didn’t - I became de facto leader of it because there weren’t that many WAC women there. Because I'd done the figures on it - it really wasn’t me. I mean it was all the women, but it was just - I just ended up being the spokesperson for it, spokeswoman for it, I suppose. She's going talk - negotiate with Grahame. I'm going, well, the women want this.

                                 Then what they did was work out that what they'd do is set - is make - have it a mandatory claim and have - and take a leading sites strategy, and then the national executive would set the mandatory settlement point. Apart from pay, I think that was the first issue we'd done that with, other than pay. I'm pretty sure, because the mandatory settlement point on pay was - you can't set it at the bargaining conference really because it'll just leak out [laughs], it'll get out.

                                 That was always something that - you'd do the leading sites. Back then we were all together pretty much. Everyone was bargaining at pretty much the same time. They were slightly staggered, but not…

Facilitator:                Not like now.

Interviewee:             …but not more than six months, not like now. Anyway, then Grahame, of course, being the feminist hero that he is, decided it was a point of honour for him. He went and bargained at Sydney Uni and he drove it until he got it. He got, I think, for 32 weeks or 36 weeks.

Facilitator:                Then the rest…

Interviewee:             Then they set that as the mandatory settlement, the 32, I think it was.

Facilitator:                Everyone got it?

Interviewee:             Almost everyone got it.

                                 I guess the moment that was really memorable to me was all the women ending up on one side of the room and realising - that sense of, actually, we're in the majority here, we could roll the secretary - no-one was going roll the secretary, it's not going to happen. No-one's going to let it happen. The divisions wouldn’t have let it happen. The national offices wouldn’t have let it happen.

                                 It meant that we were in a position to drive the bargain home. That was a really significant moment because the women had been a majority in the union for a while, but we really collectively exerted that power, not even intentionally, just by all moving together to one side of the room and having this talk…

Facilitator:                It's funny. The actual physical act of doing that…

Interviewee:             Yeah. It - like, oh, shit [laughs]. I don’t think Grahame was ever actually worried - I think I've been selectively quoted in there [the history of the NTEU book] - but he was - but it did - it had meaning. It's probably the moment I'm most proud of in all that time working in the union that we - across the union. I mean there's some good things happened at Macquarie but, nationally, that was a big thing…

Facilitator:                Yeah, that’s a really big thing.

Interviewee:             …despite all the scepticism. We went through and we pretty much won it almost everywhere.

Facilitator:                Yeah, that’s a really big thing. One thing I wanted to just get your thoughts on, I guess, is how you think the external environment, economy, politics, different ministers, that kind of thing, how that has influenced your activities and actions and motivation, I guess.

Interviewee:             I mean governments are a bit swings and roundabouts. There were the memorable fights and strikes over the [CUAs]. We had some good wins there, but it was - we were winning - we were fighting back. We weren’t advancing. We were defending ourselves. I think that’s going to continue because both major parties are basically - have bought into the market economy, individualised, not - people throw neoliberalism around a lot. Some of it's neoliberal. Some of it's not. Some of it's quite old. There's nothing neo about it. It's just good old fashioned bastardry.

                                 Both parties sell out the people basically, so I don’t - even if we - when we get a Labor Government it's like getting a slight reprieve because there are more people who might listen to us, but that’s - it doesn’t really make a lot of difference. Sure, Gillard got in and she withdrew the CUAs - great. I mean when she was the minister. Yeah, terrific, but it should never have been there in the first place. Then they went on to threaten to cut our funding. Of all the stupidities.

                                 I was really - even though I argued against it at the time, I'm glad the union withdrew their support. I'm glad they supported the Greens. I think it did rattle Labor. I think it did mean something. Damn, that I've got to admit Grahame was right, but [laughs]…

[Over speaking]

Facilitator:                [Unclear].

Interviewee:             Well, he hardly ever admits I'm right. Sometimes he does [laughs]. Not often. I mean of course it matters. I guess, at the moment, it matters in a very personal way, in that I just feel - after going through a restructure at work and seeing things like Trump being elected in the US and the ongoing horrendous things our current Government says and does, I just - I'm feeling a bit like - a bit despairing actually. So that’s pretty horrible.

                                 It was good that we had our union planning day last week because it made me feel a bit more optimistic. You can't beat being with the comrades really. My job has now taken me into a place where I work much more with management. I've had to stand up for things - I think I'm getting - this is more about my work than the union, I guess, but I'm getting more things come across my desk that challenge my sense of what's right.

                                 I've had - just last week I had to say no, I'm not - I don’t want - this job [I’m proposing] isn’t casual. It's fixed term. I agree it's not ongoing, but it's not casual. It's a project job and it has to be - I'm not going to write anything to employ someone who's a casual to do this. That’s a - we want to implement a new professional development framework et cetera. That’s really - I know that people will say I'm just pushing a union line. I'm not. I'm pushing a moral line that I don’t think you should employ casuals to do - employ casuals to do casual work. This is not casual work. This is eight months of hard slog, full time.

Facilitator:                Is that how you see your role now, because you’ve stepped back a little from official union positions.

Interviewee:             Yeah. I'm still on branch committee.

Facilitator:                How do you see - what do you see your contribution is? Or how has it changed?

Interviewee:             To the union?

Facilitator:                Yeah.

Interviewee:             Well, I'm still on branch committee. I guess I know more about - I know a bit more about what's going on. I always knew what was going on as a branch president because the executive are a bunch of - they leak [laughs]. The management strategically leaks all the time. I can't tell you how many times, as branch president, you get the call from someone saying can we have chat? They're just trying to knife someone else. Then you've got to decide how far you take advantage of it. Usually, you don’t because it's all just petty bullshit of them getting at each other.

                                 I think my commitment to the union is just as strong. There are things I will argue - I will die in a ditch over in my job. Again, not because they're necessarily a union - representing a union position - although it might be a union position by coincidence - but because I think it's wrong. The pressure's on at the moment to use student evaluation of teaching as some sort of performance measure. God, bloody - I mean the statistician in me revolts at that, not just the unionist [laughs].

                                 I don’t know. The day might come when they ask me to do something I really can't do and I'll have to quit. Hopefully, I won't, but it might come. In terms of the union, I may - I'm not sure if I'll do bargaining. I was going to do bargaining again, but my workload is such that it's - I'm thinking maybe I'll just go in and out of bargaining when they need me, or as a - on special topics or whatever.

                                 I joked to the PVC who came to our planning meeting at the - my work planning meeting - last week, when he said something like of course - because we were talking about learning and teaching strategy and all these things we want to do, which is upsetting people because, of course, it's change et cetera, et cetera.

                                 I said the problem that you've got, of course, is that all these bright young early career academics that we need - who are already tech savvy, who don’t need to do the training to be able to do these things and are interested in doing them, in all this high tech stuff - you're not employing them. They're casuals. We're not employing them. Give them jobs and we'll have a lot more leverage on the strategy because people will be interested in it. Anyway, he said something about oh, of course, we've got enterprise bargaining coming up. I said do you want me to be on the management team? [Laughs].

Facilitator:                Nice.

Interviewee:             Mind you, last time in bargaining he came in to talk about these ideas about learning and teaching, because management brought him in to do all this stuff and tell us about how we just had to be more flexible et cetera, et cetera. He and I ended up in furious agreement, and the management team didn’t ask him back after that [laughs].

[Over speaking]

Facilitator:                Yeah No[Unclear].

Interviewee:             He's my boss, and I really like working with him, so it was quite funny. Anyway, look, I mean now - certainly, my - obviously, I'm in a different position, so the relationship to the union's work has changed significantly. The thing I miss most is that thing of being with the comrades and having - you miss being the go-to person, even though it's a pain in the arse being the go-to person [laughs]. I've got a bit of feather duster syndrome going on, but yeah, it hasn’t changed my commitment to it at all.

Facilitator:                Do you see yourself as a mentor to other people?

Interviewee:             Yeah.

Facilitator:                In what way?

Interviewee:             Well, I know when Alison took over the - she kept saying to me you're not going to leave me, you're not going to leave, don’t you leave me, you'll have to stay around, you'll have to help me. I said yeah, yeah, yeah. I've probably told you this. I said I'll help you and I'll advise you, until one day you'll turn around and say for god's sakes, Cathy, shut up, I'm the branch president now, and then I'll know you're okay.

                                 I said to her whatever you need, I'll be there. I do have a view of the institution working for a central unit. I do have a view of the institution that people forget how much their faculty culture influences their outlook. I can step back from that and see - because I work with all the faculties all across - across all the faculties, so I've got that perspective. I've got insight into the strategies and plans, so I can - that helps us with strategy.

                                 I don’t think that’s a betrayal of my job or anything. I just think that’s me. I'm an employee. I'm still an employee and I'm entitled to use what - I'm not talking about confidential stuff. I'm talking about just my knowledge of the way that the institution works. Also, I've been there a long time, so I know lots of people, so I use my networks. That’s another thing I contribute to the union, I think, is the use of my networks to point people to the right place.

                                 I do - yeah, I give - I mentor and I give advice and I certainly am pretty - I mean the meeting the last week, I probably talked too much about the bargaining strategy and things like that, but it's just experience really. You have to - it doesn’t mean that I'm always right or that - and, fortunately, in Macquarie branch committee - and we've always had this - there's plenty of people who will tell us we're wrong if they think we're wrong.

Facilitator:                Robust.

Interviewee:             Yeah. [Wylie] will say no [laughs]. We'll have stand-up arguments about stuff, but still be great colleagues and comrades. Yeah, they're no push-over at the branch committee [laughs].

Facilitator:                I'm sure. One thing I did want to ask you about - and we were just joking about it before when we were making our teas. How did you manage - I mean you worked and then you got this large commitment - you've had this large commitment to the union over time. How did that - how did you manage that with other things in your life - family…

Interviewee:             Well, I didn’t manage it very well, I think. I mean my - I didn’t finish my PhD. I did stop - I did ease off union work for a period while I was doing my PhD, and then I had - well, some personal issues got in the way, I guess. I had a big break up of a relationship I'd been in for 15 years. That caused - well, not on its own caused - but it exacerbated issues my daughter was having. She's needed a lot of support over the last few years.

                                 She's okay now, I think. She's getting through things now, but she was - she had struggles, was really horrible. It was daily anxiety. The thing - you've got to let something go, and I was committed to the union and didn’t feel I could walk out on it. It was actually - that comradeship is one of the things that keeps you going too. It gives you strength.

                                 I obviously had to stand by my daughter and do whatever she needed to support her, and also know when to stop so that she could find her own way. That was the hardest bit. So it was my academic work that was sacrificed, I guess. I think that happens to a lot of people who get involved in the union. I don’t know how people can actually have positions and continue to balance it all and continue to publish and all that sort of thing, because I couldn’t do it. But then I'm probably not a great time manager. I get [laughs] very bound up in the other things I'm doing.

                                 I also felt - and I really agonised over giving up the PhD but, actually, what I started to see was - because I was researching governance, university governance. What I started to see, that it actually didn’t matter what you researched because the people in power don’t listen to that. They don’t - we're analysing all those things that happened, but nobody acts on what comes out of it because they - once they achieve these positions of power - as vice chancellors and DVCs - they don’t - they think they don’t need the research.

                                 I mean why else would universities do change so badly when they’ve got management - departments full of people who know exactly - who've researched the cultural aspects of change and know how important it is and know how it can damage people and know how - what the key things are to manage change well. I mean it's always going to be difficult. It's always going to be traumatic for some people, but how to leverage the good things about it. They don’t do it. They just roll it through.

                                 I mean I lost about a dozen colleagues last year, one of whom I'd worked with for 21 years. I think we're all - one of my other colleagues - Agnes Bosanquet, who's our branch secretary - she said I think we're all suffering a form of PTSD, because it was a really strong, solid team that we had, and they smashed it to bits. They don’t care about the research.

Facilitator:                Have you - we might go to the final question. Have you seen a change in culture across the sector in your time?

Interviewee:             Yeah. I think it's a much meaner, more competitive, more individualised world than it used to be, to the point where it's - when they gave us the little talk from HR about our change process and explained to us all the reasons why organisations might want change. She said has anyone - and this happens a lot in the corporate sector - has anyone worked for a corporation? I said yeah, we work in the university.

                                 She said oh, I mean private industry. I said oh yeah, well a university's a corporation, just like a big commercial corporation, except without the compassion and heart. Don’t come in here and preach to us about the corporate bloody world. Jesus, I wanted to smack her in the head. Anyway, she'd only been there a week, poor bugger. They threw her into the deep end [laughs].

                                 One of my colleagues said yeah, we know about change. It's our job. We're the learning and teaching centre. We do this. We know all about change. We know why this change is happening, and it's none of the things that you've put up there, so just next slide please.

Facilitator:                Welcome.

Interviewee:             [Laughs] yeah. We were furious. Anyway, has it changed? I mean yes, I think it has. A lot of the - because we've got very much a paradox of scope. You know what I mean by that, that when an organisation gets so large and entrepreneurial and multifaceted and it's involved in so many things, what you find is that the real work that it does ends up at the periphery of its operations. It loses control of them and you can't direct it because it's too peripheral.

                                 It's a bit - I mean that’s what we're seeing with teaching. Most of the teaching's being done by casual staff, and they're at the periphery in all ways of the institution, other than for the students, where they're right at the centre, but who cares about that? It's a bit like - they reckon the Mary Rose went down because the line of command was too long to tell the guys to close the gun doors while they turned the ship. The same sort of thing: paradox of scope. You’ve got - it's so big and there are so many steps between the centre and the edge that - you're trying to do that because you're trying to cover all the things you're interested in but, in fact, you're losing control of it.

                                 I think we're suffering that really badly. We've got hollow centres. The academic leadership - on our senate now - they just approved our quality indicators for learning and teaching, but the DVC made it very clear to the academic senate that they could only look at the academic side of that because these indicators, if we implement them, they will  have budget implications, and senate is not a position to endorse the whole package because senate doesn’t have anything to do with budget.

                                 Now, I was on senate as a student rep and I remember them arguing over the WEFTSEL and who should have 1.12 and who should have 1.15 and all that stuff - because they did look at the budget. I actually think - and people - you don’t want all your academics looking at budget. Well, okay, no, of course you don’t, because you don’t want academics to be in charge of the university.

                                 Of course - just cut us off from the information - that’s business, don’t you worry your pretty little head about that, that’s business, that’s for the managers. You just go and be an academic and you can make nice pronouncements in senate and agree to very good quality indicators, though I say so myself, having read most of them. They can approve the academic - they can tell us all they like, but it's academically sound, but if it costs too much we won't do it. They're powerless.

                                 I think that - that would not have - 25, 30 years ago that just couldn’t have happened. The senates had control, and now they don’t - the rise of executive power. There's been some increase in - because if you look at the three arms of governance in universities - the council, the governing body, the academic governing body - or the senate or the academic board or whatever you call it - and the executive, the power has accrued from both to the executive.

                                 There was a little bit of increase in power a few years ago to the governing board, but that’s been utterly captured by the executive now because they’ve minimised the voices of the internal members, and so that - the executive's captured the boards and the academics, and it's out there with nothing except some nice civilised discussions about academic matters - which is important, but it has no power attached to it, not real power. The power's where the money is. I think that’s been a massive change because the - I mean there's always been money in universities and arguments over resources, but there was much more power held by the academy than there is now.

Facilitator:                If I could ask you, finally, what do you think the biggest challenge is facing the NTEU?

Interviewee:             The biggest challenge? Casualisation.

Facilitator:                Why is that?

Interviewee:             And the changing nature of academic work; not because we're just an academic union, but if academic work changes - if the nature of academic work changes, so does the nature of the support for it and the structures that go with it. That’s general and academic staff that are affected.

                                 I think work casualisation, partly because of that - our inability to organise them. It just makes that much - it's that much harder to organise, and because of the incredible power that it gives the management. Their managers have incredible power over them, especially if they're going to look at their student surveys and say oh, you have to get fours or you won't get a job next year.

                                 I told - when I was doing induction for the sessional staff I told them that if they get that in their department, come to me and I'll teach you how to game them. I said I'll give you some clues about how to get good results, don’t worry. I've told the executive I'm doing that too. I said to them oh, I've told them. If you're going to use this, I've told them I'll teach them to game them. We'll have a little tutorial on it.

Facilitator:                How did that go down, Cathy?

Interviewee:             [Laughs]. They didn’t look very happy.


Interviewee:             They look - they go ha, ha, ha, like she's joking…

Facilitator:                She’s just joking.

Interviewee:             oh shit [laughs]. I'm seriously fed up with that sort of bullshit.

Facilitator:                Is there anything - I know it's an ongoing discussion within the union, but is there anything that you really feel should be a priority for improving the situation in terms of casualisation?

Interviewee:             Well, I certainly think we have to join people up, but I - and we have the work to do, as we said at council last year. We have the work to do with our own continuing stuff, our own membership. I've had people - heads of department - say oh, we can't - you can't claim that because our department would become non-viable. I said, well, if your department's only viable because it's exploiting people and underpaying them, then I'm afraid you’re non-viable. “You are the weakest link, goodbye.” We're going to have to bite the bullet on this.

                                 The other thing I think we need to get real about is teaching staff. I think we have to be employing teaching staff. It's all right for the group of eight people to stand up in council and say this is - we shouldn’t have teaching only staff and blah, blah, blah. We do have teaching only staff. They're now about 55 per cent of our workforce [laughs].

                                 When are we doing to recognise it? It's just that they have no conditions. They have no - their super is crap. They have no leave. We've got to get those casuals into jobs. We need to be saying to the universities we'll do a deal with you on this, and not just scholarly teaching fellows who are, essentially, overloaded early career academics, and then at our place still being told no, we're not employing this one because they haven’t got a good enough research record. You tear your hair out about this. That’s the reality.

                                 We actually need to make a quantum shift in this and say look, once upon a time we had an elite system. We educated 10 per cent of the cohort and everyone we employed could be a teacher and a researcher. Mind you, that’s not how we started. Our universities didn’t start that way, but anyway. Even Sydney was a teaching institution.

                                 We could do that back then. We can't do it now. We're now educating 40 per cent of the cohort - at least trying to - the ones that don’t drop out - and we need specialist teachers. They need to be good scholars in their discipline. They need to have good background, good grounding in the discipline.

                                 They need to be able to teach across a few areas in the discipline. They need to be scholarly teachers. They need to be taught to teach as well as the experts in their discipline, and we need to be putting them in front of our students because, otherwise, we're just a sausage factory and our standards will continue to fall.

                                 I think that’s a big battle in the union because people just see teaching only and go oh, undermining the academic profession. Well, not as much as casualisation's undermining the academic profession. You want to see undermining? At least we'd have colleagues who would be good at teaching and love teaching and have a vocation for it. We need to select them for that.

                                 We want to - all this stuff is about student experience. They're not interested in staff experience. It's all about student experience. You're going to improve that if you have people who are specialist teachers. [Unclear] They’re going to do it. They're putting on some number of teaching specialists for their first year students, because they are teaching to the real marginal kids, so they need people to look after them.

                                 To me, I think that all these things are bound up together. The real challenge is right wing bastards in power. Revolutions aside, and all that [laughs], when I think about what we can do within our institutions, I think we need to change that culture that somehow the only way to be a respected academic is to be doing [research] - we're just buying into their ERA bullshit, like oh, you've got to publish in A star journals. What, Nature is going to put out an edition each week? We can't all do that. Just accept it. We're not all going to be winners [laughs]. There's valid scholarship to do that isn’t necessarily that ground breaking on the edge research, but in applications and in integration, all of Boyer's stuff.

[Over speaking]

Facilitator:                [Unclear].

Interviewee:             You know Boyer's stuff on application and integration and dissemination? It's completely forgotten. Actually, that’s another thing that’s changed. When I first joined universities it was understood that there were different sorts of research that people did, and that scholarship and in your discipline didn’t have to be ground breaking research.

                                 There were other valuable forms of scholarship. Now that’s not valued at all. That’s what's caught out so many of our older members who are now being found research inactive and inadequate and insufficient and unsatisfactory and all this sort of stuff, when all they're doing is doing the same things as - that 30 years ago were perfectly acceptable for an academic to do: reading, thinking, writing. I know. I know [laughs].

Facilitator:                Is there anything…

Interviewee:             I told you I'd rave on [laughs].

Facilitator:                Is there anything, finally, that you think sums up your experience of being an active union member?

Interviewee:             Sums it up? Gee. I don’t know. You probably should ask other people. For me, look, there are things that I've neglected that I probably should have done if I'd wanted a successful academic career, or that I should have done, not probably, but I don’t regret it. Every minute of working for the union has been good. Okay, there have been a few bad minutes in bargaining but, apart from that, it's a fantastic thing to feel part of something bigger than yourself.

                                 That’s part of the reason I sing in choirs. They're also active as choirs. That sense of being part of a wider struggle is actually very rewarding, I think. You’ve got to be a bit tough because we're losing more than we're winning at the moment. We can paint it - you can talk it up however you like, and you can do the PR job - we're losing. I'm not sure what the answer is to that, other than organise, organise, organise.

                                 That’s disappointing, but I'm trying not to dwell on that because I think there's still value - there are still valuable things we can do. We can certainly support - even if it comes down to supporting our colleagues in the workplace when they're in trouble, when the bosses really become bastards - because they're not all bastards.

                                 I mean that’s the other thing you learn, that they’ve got constraints too. It would be much better if we could work with them to break down the constraints than be constantly working against them to try to extract the best value we can out of these unreasonable constraints, but I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen again. It did happen once.

                                 Yeah, it's rewarding. I've loved it. I've met so many fantastic people. The people you meet - national council. All over the country there are people like us. It's fantastic. I would never have - actually, a really important thing - I would never have - probably would never have really got to know as many Indigenous people as I have through the union because there are not a lot of Indigenous people about in Gladesville; certainly none I went to school with. Very few at Macquarie University.

                                 The union's given me an opportunity to get to know some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and get - just learn so much from them, just learn heaps about the relationship between these cultures. It's just - that’s been really good. That’s a big one to take away. That’s been a great opportunity, a great privilege. It's a privilege to serve the union [laughs]. Remember that when the executive are giving you the pip [laughs]. Consider it as a privilege.

Facilitator:                Is there anything else that you want to say?

Interviewee:             No. I think that’s all.

Facilitator:                If there's photos or your list of activities, things that we could put up as well.

Interviewee:             I'll send you the one of me on my bike with the NTEU flag, during strikes.

Facilitator:                Fantastic.

Interviewee:             I just rode my bike right around - because we had about six picket lines on all the entrances.

Facilitator:                Fantastic.



Abbreviations used

ACU: Australian Catholic University

DVCs: Deputy Vice Chancellors

CPSU: Community and Public Sector Union


ERA: Excellence in Research Australia

HAREA: The Health and Research Association of Australia

ILO: International Labour Organisation

NTEU: National Tertiary Education Union

PTSD: Post traumatic stress disorder

UTS: University of Technology Sydney

WAC: Women’s Action Committee


Names mentioned

Agnes Bosanquet

John Corbett

Julia Gillard

Chris Holley

Wendy McMurdo

Ann Went

Alison Barnes





Pat: John Corbett’s Wife

Ron: Secretary of the branch



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union women activism Australia