Can Victoria’s teachers open a new era?

About 15,000 Victorian teachers rallied in Melbourne on September 5. Photo: Tony Iltis

One day after the huge stop work and rally of Australian Education Union (AEU) members on September 5, Mary Bluett, the Victorian AEU’s branch president, announced she was retiring. Her husband AEU branch secretary Brian Henderson, also announced his retirement. Bluett has been an education union official for 31 years.

The Victorian AEU is a 51,000 member strong union. Teachers have come increasingly under attack in recent years, but they, like nurses, still have a lot of public support.

This, combined with its size, places the AEU in a favourable position to campaign for improved working conditions and to boost funding for government schools. However, over the past decade the working conditions of teachers and education support staff have worsened significantly. Victorian government schools are the lowest funded in Australia.

Contract work in education is also a big problem. Forty five percent of education support staff – clerical workers, integration assistants, library technicians, and others – are employed on contracts. In TAFE, there are more casual employees than permanents. Among school teachers, about 18% are on contracts. For graduate teachers, the figure is close to 40%.

From October 1, AEU members will be able to vote in the union’s elections. The two groups contesting are: the incumbent officials, who are staunch supporters of the Bluett/Henderson vision and campaign strategy; and the Teachers & ES Alliance (TESA) group.

TESA is made up of classroom teachers who believe it is time for a new approach to improve working conditions, end contract teaching and win a much-needed injection of funds to government schools.

TESA believes it is absolutely necessary to fight the Victorian government proposals for teachers. These include performance pay, a cap on salary increments, a culling of around 5% of teachers, an increase in workload and an insulting, below-inflation pay offer of 2.5% -- in effect, a pay cut.

But they stress that defeating these are only part of the fight for justice for teachers and education support staff. Real improvements in working conditions must be won, otherwise AEU members will once again be sold short.

TESA have produced an online video to get their message about their policies to members. The voting will begin in the school holidays, making it hard for TESA to get its message out. Watch the video here.

TESA believes a vision for education must include a well-funded government school system, so that government schools are the schools of first choice. It is time to turn around the situation where private schools collect millions in school fees but receive more government funding than the government schools.

Some believe the departure of Bluett/Henderson will open a new era, but the truth is that this will happen only if the AEU leadership adopts a radical new vision and a bold approach to industrial campaigns.

[Mary Merkenich is an AEU activist and TESA member.]

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