By Sue Bull
CANBERRA — Since July 20, the Department of Education and Community Services (DECS) has made primary schools suffer. Twenty-nine school bursars have been stood down, one at a time, under the "lockout" laws in the federal Workplace Relations Act.
The bursars were upholding the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) ban on submitting financial statements for the last financial year to DECS. This task takes less than 1% of the bursars' work time.
ACT primary school bursars have been under-classified for three years, since central office responsibilities were devolved to schools. Under the government's "school-based management" system, bursars have undertaken more complex duties, like managing school maintenance contracts.
As their responsibilities have increased, so has their workload and the value of their work. DECS, however, has refused to upgrade them.
Tim Gooden, the CPSU ACT government section secretary, told Green Left Weekly, "Under Reith's reactionary Workplace Relations Act, the bursars are subject to the same bullying tactics that were used against the maritime union in its dispute with Patrick last year.
"The ACT Liberal government believes it can ask workers to pick up additional duties and work harder for nothing. If the workers protest, the laws will be used against them.
"Bursars are a group of relatively low-paid, overwhelmingly women workers. Clearly, the education minister, Bill Stefaniak, is hoping to starve them into submission."
Gooden explained that the struggle was important for all workers because the ACT government is attempting to use the new laws to prevent workers from campaigning for their rights and better conditions. He added: "It is also using the laws inconsistently, focusing its attack on the weaker sections of the work force".
This was confirmed by Russell Shepherd, ACT secretary of the firefighters' union, who said on national radio that the ACT government is overreacting to the bursars. ACT firefighters have had bans on since April but no action has been taken against them, he said.
Public support for the bursars has been overwhelming. The ACT Trades and Labor Council has endorsed their actions and called on TLC affiliates to lend support. The Australian Education Union has voted to direct its members not to undertake any of the stood-down bursars' work and to give $1000 to the support fund.
Money is being collected by CPSU delegates from all workplaces, and the bursars are staffing stalls in all major shopping centres with information and petitions. Thousands of dollars have already been donated.
Donations for the bursars' campaign can be sent c/- CPSU, PO Box 925, Dickson 2602. Supporters are asked also to phone (02) 6205 0112, fax (02) 6205 3000 or write to ACT Legislative Assembly, GPO Box 1020, Canberra 2601 to tell Stefaniak that the government's bullying won't be tolerated.