By Norrian Rundle
MELBOURNE — Victorian Australian Education Union members are very angry at the unprecedented votes in February by the union's council to impose a $100 compulsory levy on all members but to take no industrial action for the next six months. Many sub-branches have already passed motions in opposition to the proposed levy, which takes the place of industrial action in the middle of a campaign for a certified agreement for pay and conditions.
The union leadership's recent handling of the campaign, on top of six years of woefully inadequate responses to the Kennett government's attacks on teachers' working conditions, has increased feelings of isolation and lack of support from the union's central office and lost the leadership whatever credibility it had retained.
The campaign has involved only very limited action — two or three stop-works have been called each year, some state-wide and some at the regional level. The last full day stop-works in November was a community rally.
No stop-work meeting was held then to allow members to determine the direction of the campaign. Instead, the leadership assured members that there would be consultation through sub-branches. The February council meeting would then make a decision. The leadership is seeking to avoid mass meetings where there may be criticism of its tactics.
The period of consultation coincided with the end of the 1998 school year and the beginning of this school year, both busy times for teachers. Few sub-branches had time to meet and formulate positions. There was also no leadership from the union executive. Only 16 of 1600 sub-branches responded.
Members of the Rank and File Group opposed the levy at the council meeting. As a result, the council decided to send a letter to all members, seeking sub-branch feedback. In another first, these letters were individually addressed to members.
The letter explained that the levy will fund the public relations campaign the union has been running for three years, which targets marginal electorates in order to put education high on the election agenda.
The letter also made it clear that if members did not pay the levy, they would no longer have access to membership services. This denial of services does not apply to members who do not join strike action, yet the levy is proposed as an alternative to industrial action.
The letter stated that paying a levy to fund a media publicity campaign was better than giving money to the government (through pay lost from striking). Right-wingers often use this argument as an excuse not to join strikes.
This statement is a denial of the historical effectiveness of industrial action. After such a statement, it is difficult to see how this leadership could ever call the membership out on strike again.
The leaders' strategy cannot achieve a certified agreement. They are asking members to have faith in a publicity campaign with no accompanying industrial action, hoping that whoever wins government will return resources to education.
This might get the Kennett government to put some money into schools in marginal electorates. The ALP has little chance of winning government at the next state election.
But even if the ALP did win government, its education policy will do little to improve conditions in state schools. The only maximum class sizes proposed are in prep, grade one and grade two. Contract teachers will stay, in reduced numbers. And there are no clear commitments to reduce the workload of teachers.
Following the Blair government initiatives in Britain, John Brumby, the leader of the opposition, threatened that a Labor government will close schools and sack teachers if schools do not perform to required standards. Not even Kennett has threatened this.
The union leaders may find that their strategy backfires; militants may leave in protest. Indeed, some feel that the AEU should change its name to the Australian Education Lobby Group. Members who do not take strike action may also leave to avoid paying the levy.
The levy may be defeated but, unfortunately, the leadership has shown itself unable to offer a winning alternative. It is time for members to demand a campaign that can win back their conditions.