“I teach my students about how to be a radical artist who thinks and makes critically. I have to lead by example and show them what it looks like to be working in an institution and stand up for what you think is right.” - Ruth O’Leary
On Wednesday, September 13, art students gathered outside building two of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) city campus to join their lecturer Ruth O'Leary in a protest.
An artistic protest banner was created on Bowen Street before it was draped from the third-level window of the Melbourne campus.
The visual display was part of the National Tertiary Education Union’s (NTEU) day-long industrial action from 12am to 11.59pm after negotiations on the outdated enterprise agreements were stalled.
All three of RMIT’s Enterprise Agreements have expired and staff members have been calling for renegotiation of contract legalities with multiple strikes this year.
Students who had been informed days prior that classes were cancelled because of the strike and the protest, saw the opportunity “to come together and stand in solidarity with our lecturer Ruth along with all the other casual staff at RMIT”, fine art student Guaire McKenna said.
The protest banner, which was visible from the LaTrobe Street side, was a highlight of the protest for many of those who attended campus.
“We stood at the picket line and painted a large banner whilst the security and suits of RMIT watched over us,” he said.
Making commentary on RMIT’s policies, the banner used various mediums of paint on a white background featuring both written text and drawings.
Its message was directed toward the current RMIT enterprise agreement, which enables the institution to hire casual lecturers and staff despite fixed weekly hours throughout the semester.
RMIT said the banner at the recent strike was the subject of a WorkSafe investigation.
Photos by Arielle Bateman
RMIT casual employee and lecturer Ruth O’Leary, said striking was not only “in solidarity” with her peers, but to take action against the current “lack of sick leave/maternity leave”.
Under the current agreement, as a casual staff member, Ms O’Leary is given her roster a semester in advance and paid for classes she attends on campus.
However, despite having a fixed schedule like her part-time and full-time counterparts, Ms O’Leary is not paid maternity leave or sick leave and receives lower superannuation.
Ms O’Leary said her contract left her to prioritise attending a class over prioritising her health.
“As a result of not being able to miss teaching a class this semester, I made the hard decision to take my first abortion pill whilst teaching,” she said.
“I knew our rent was coming up and I could not afford to miss that week's pay.”
Ms O’Leary was empowered to tell her story to inspire change in the agreement, taking to train stations and busy streets of Melbourne wearing a dress with her shock story written in bold-red writing.
“I am a casual lecturer breastfeeding mother feminist artist, and I had an abortion at work,” the dress read.
Her casual employment also means when the semester ends, her partner needs to find full-time work to support her and her three young children.
“Then there is always the chance he will have to change his work schedule when and if I get offered teaching the next year or semester,” she said.
“It is the fragility of the job.”
Participating in the strike and inviting students to join her was important for Ruth as an artist.
“I teach my students about how to be a radical artist who thinks and makes critically,” she said.
“I have to lead by example and show them what it looks like to be working in an institution and stand up for what you think is right.”
Her students, like McKenna, stated that while the action at the protest was a “beautiful experience”, it was a “sad reality check that RMIT didn't respect the importance of the strike”.
RMIT security attended the scene and asked students to “disband” after the banner was draped out the window.
McKenna said vehicles continued to move through the intersection as usual, despite the strike taking place, and “trampled over the artwork” being created.
“Strikes are supposed to inconvenience people to get a message across. It felt like we were shouting into the void,” he said.
However, McKenna acknowledged the artistic opportunity provided at the strike, allowing him to demonstrate his education to the institutions.
This included demonstrating the skills he had learnt from his lecturers, such as Ms O’Leary, and her value to the students at the university.
“Ruth O'Leary has been an incredibly important and inspiring lecturer to us,” he said.
“Striking from RMIT was a performance piece in itself.”
Receiving an incredible response from her dress, Ms O’Leary is continuing to work on her show ‘42 Abortion Dresses’. Each dress works to represent the stigma surrounding abortions and the need for maternity leave.
"All those stories that women are telling me indicate the large amount of shame attached to ending a pregnancy,” she said.
“ 42 days is the traditional period of postpartum which should be maintained even if a birth has not resulted in a baby.”
The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) funded the strike and is leading staff through negotiations with RMIT’s senior leadership.
Stated on the NTEU website log of claims, voted by the union, the organisation focused on “increased job security for all staff, including protections against restructures and secure jobs for casual staff”.
NTEU is also bargaining for “a decent pay rise, with all hours paid for all hours worked for casual staff,” who currently only get paid when in the classroom.
NTEU member Liam Ward told the Swanston Gazette earlier in May “we want job security, for the casuals and long-term staff who get stuffed around and screwed over by RMIT year after year”.
With many of RMIT’s casual workers forced to have multiple jobs to keep up with current economic difficulties, it is evident that an agreement needs to be met.
But RMIT told The Swanston Gazette that the majority of the university’s staff continued to work, saying there was “minimal” impact for students.
The university refuted that most classes were cancelled on September 13.
“While RMIT acknowledges NTEU members’ rights to take protected industrial action, we do not condone behaviour that is unsafe and poses a risk to our community,” an RMIT spokesperson said.
“RMIT's primary concern is the health and safety of its employees, students and other members of the public attending on campus.
“Contingency plans were in place to help minimise disruption on the day and ensure continuity of teaching and support to our students.
“We are committed to continuing to bargain in good faith to get the right outcomes for our community as we work hard to finalise our agreements.”