The entrance to the Baillieu Library looked very different in the last week of August.
Throughout Week 6, students and staff from the University of Melbourne could be found out on the picket line outside the library trying to win student support for the National Tertiary Education Union’s (NTEU) ongoing industrial action campaign.
Unlike most students who joined the strike out of solidarity with their tutors and teaching staff, Emily Kaji and Neera Kadkol had a more pressing reason to be out on the Baillieu picket. They don’t just study at the University of Melbourne; like hundreds of others across different faculties and departments, they work here too.
“I think one other person amongst casual staff was part of the NTEU.”
Kaji and Kadkol are both employed as casual Student Library Assistants—the staff you can see on the more quiet levels of libraries across campus, returning books and letting you know when it’s closing time.
The unionisation of the library’s casual workforce is a relatively recent development. While Kaji noted that staff on permanent contracts were often proud union members, when she started working as a casual Student Library Assistant, or SLA, the union’s presence among the casuals was minimal.
“I joined around December 2021. I definitely knew there was a union presence among the full-time staff, and I think it was mentioned in training.”
“But at [the] Baillieu, I think one other person among casual staff was part of the NTEU.”
Since she began hosting workplace meetings at the Baillieu in late 2022, building the union’s presence amongst casual SASS staff, Kaji says that the strike rate of casual staff is now “over 90%”.
“We can do something about this, right?”
Kadkol has been an SLA for over eight years, but her involvement with the NTEU only began last year—she had previously figured that as a Master of Publishing and Communications student who did library work on the side for some industry experience, the tertiary education union wasn’t really for her.
“As a student casual, I felt very removed from everything… we had it pretty good. At the time, before last year, we were getting enough work, and I was quite complacent, I guess”.
Kadkol noticed a drastic change last year when shifts became more precarious for casual workers.
“I used to work at Southbank [Library], I’m at ERC now. We are used to less shifts over winter break. It makes sense, but last year there were six SLAs at Southbank, and five shifts a week. There was only one three-hour shift every day, Monday to Friday.”
For Khadhol, the prospect of working only one shift a fortnight was not feasible. “Hours have been reduced in the past, but this was the most severe reduction; one of us was missing out of work each week.”
It was this experience of insecure work and underemployment that drove Kadkol to get involved in union organising in her workplace.
“I began thinking, we can do something about this, right?”
“At the end of the day, we are in the same union… the right thing to do is walk out with them.”
As students in the Arts faculty—the first work area to vote in favour of a week-long strike— striking for Kaji and Kadkol is about more than just their interests as workers and union members.
“As [library] staff, we have this issue, but we also have this feeling of solidarity”, Kaji says.
“We’ve seen our tutors putting up with shit and going through shitty conditions, I feel a lot of solidarity with tutors. I know they email me and help me outside of working hours, and they don’t get paid for it… that little bit of kindness makes such a huge difference to me.”
Kadkol agrees. “We see how precarious Arts tutors… well, tutors in general, but Arts especially being the ones striking, have it”.
“You see the staff’s dedication, and it’s sad to see them be put through these shitty decisions”.
Kadkol believes that students who work at the University have an essential role to play in the wider industrial action, being able to bridge the divide between striking staff and students who have had their classes cancelled.
“It’s quite helpful for the campaign as a whole to have us, students as well as staff, because we have this perspective, we can be like [to other students] ‘they do this for us.’”
Kaji says that the solidarity students feel with their tutors was a recurring point of discussion in the workplace meetings where the SLAs voted to join the strike.
“The conversation was about how much we love working in the library, but also a lot of the discussion when we voted was, ‘It is not just about us.’ At the end of the day, we are in the same branch, in the same union, and these are our fellow union members… the right thing to do is walk out with them.”
“It’s about rent for us, it's about the cost of living.”
While solidarity with tutors was a major motivation for the SLAs to strike, Khaji and Kadkol say that SLAs have their own suite of workplace issues that need to be addressed.
While the two maintain that a pathway to secure work is the ultimate goal for this strike, they concede that most SLAs do prefer being casual.
However, even though she personally wouldn’t take it, Kadkol notes that in the eight years she’s worked as an SLA, she’s never been offered the opportunity to move to a part-time or full-time contract.
“Not all SLAs want part-time… but a pathway for those who want it is important”, she says.
The main focus for the SLAs is a pay rise that matches the rate of inflation—currently 6.0%— as casual workers and university students have both been hit particularly hard by the rising cost of essential items.
“SLAs as casuals and students, we are holding out for a pay rise.It’s about rent for us, it's about the cost of living and all those other buzzwords,” Kaji says.
When the 2.5% pay rise from May last year was discussed, the two laugh. “I didn’t notice a difference in my paycheck day to day,” Kadkol says, “[but] I do notice how expensive going grocery shopping is.”
Kaji shrugs off the change as insignificant. “2.5% is nothing… groceries are not going up by 2.5%.”
In the twelve months to March, the cost of groceries from Woolworths and Coles rose nearly 10%, compared to a 7% inflation rate over the same period. Both companies posted over a billion dollars in profit each in the last financial year, and have been accused of price gouging.
Another change Kaji and Kadkol want to see is paid casual sick leave, which the SLAs currently don’t have access to. They used to have access to COVID payments to stay home when infected, but those have been cut, with some staff members having to choose between not spreading the virus or going hungry.
Kaji puts it plainly: “It's fucked; it is an unkind way to deal with a pandemic that’s still happening.”
“The amount of times I’ve had to miss work because, like, I can’t actually get out of bed… to at least get paid to miss some of these shifts would be so good,” Kadkol says.
Kadkol, who lives with an ongoing disability, says that the ideal amount of annual sick leave would be five days—the same as the Victorian Government’s Sick Pay Guarantee, which library workers are not eligible for.
“It would make a massive difference”.
Kadkol says, however, that the need for a pay rise is more immediate. “The pay rise is a much more pressing issue now than it has been in the past… and we used to get more work than we do now”.
“Higher risks lead to higher rewards.”
Both Kaji and Kadkol are spending the rest of their week on the Baillieu Library picket line instead of working, canvassing students and trying to win their support for the NTEU’s industrial action.
Despite the stress and pressure of a week’s lost wages, both remain optimistic about their involvement in the unprecedented strike campaign.
“Higher risks lead to higher rewards,” Kaji smiles.