At a November 30 state council meeting, Victorian Australian Education Union (AEU) officials attacked the Teachers Alliance, a rank-and-file grouping, for distributing a leaflet at a November 21 stop-work meeting that warned of the dangers of compromises by the officials who are engaged in negotiations with the Victorian state government about a new agreement for teachers.
In particular, the officials attacked information in the leaflet about a complicated and confusing method of calculating workload and class size maximums. The officials claimed that this breached a confidentiality agreement with the education department.
Thousands of teachers turned out on November 21 to support the industrial campaign. The support for the stop work heralded a very successful start to the campaign. Teachers are very concerned about the shameful funding to government schools and levels of contract teaching. They are also angry about their very stressful working conditions and the insulting pay levels (Victorian teachers the lowest paid in Australia).
The leaflet warned of the dangers of any offers that would result in very little, if any, improvements to school budgets, working conditions or the eradication of contract teaching in return for pay rises. This warning was based on the experience of past agreements.
The "confidentiality agreement" means that AEU state councillors are made to promise that they will not write anything down or distribute anything in a written form when they are given the latest update about negotiations. They are only permitted to give verbal reports. This means, for example that an AEU state councillor can't email information to AEU members and thereby keep them informed about the status of negotiations or their view on any current offers by the government. Moreover, AEU councillors can't even circulate something at their own schools or to the members in their region who elected them. As a result, councillors can reach only a very small number of union members — in effect, a gag, particularly given the difficulty of explaining complex information such as pay scales orally.
Teachers Alliance member Norrian Rundle told Green Left Weekly, "We strongly believe that AEU members should be thoroughly informed about these negotiations constantly and must also have access to all points of view about the possible implications arising out of any agreement. It's in our interests so that we can inform our negotiators about what we want and so that all teachers can make informed decisions when deciding to approve any proposed agreement."
Alliance members believe that the attack at the council meeting was an attempt to intimidate them into not exposing any sections of a proposed agreement that the AEU officials or the education department don't want AEU members or the broader community to know about. One council member even called for sanctions to be imposed on the Teachers Alliance.
Bronwyn Jennings, another Teachers Alliance member, said that the union "should be actively campaigning against these undemocratic restrictions. The AEU should be arguing that this information is published for the broader community. The community has a right to know how their taxes are being spent, how much the government is spending on their schools and their teachers. This way the community can hold its government ministers to account. We absolutely oppose secret, behind-closed-doors negotiations."
[Mary Merkenich is an AEU state councillor and Teachers Alliance member. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org.]