On May 5, Victorian Premier John Brumby announced that a deal had been struck with the Australian Education Union that would end the union's 16-month-long industrial campaign. Victorian state school teachers had campaigned to secure better working conditions and pay rises and to reduce contract teaching.
Victorian AEU branch president Mary Bluett said the deal was a "huge victory" and would make Victorian teachers the best paid in Australia.
However, many teachers disagreed. Angry letters were written to newspapers and a vigorous email campaign was launched rejecting the union leadership's claims that significant pay rises and reductions in contract teaching had been won. Heated debate then took place at the meetings to ratify the deal, which were held throughout Victoria in early June.
The debate and the depth of anger and opposition to the deal and how it had been achieved took the leadership by surprise. Many AEU members were frustrated that the deal had been brokered in secret, with members having no control over the end result.
The Teachers Alliance, a group of rank-and-file AEU members and state councillors, urged teachers to reject the divisive agreement, which offered vastly different outcomes to different groups. The deal only accorded wage parity with NSW for those teachers in the top and bottom pay classifications, and failed to deliver any of the improvements in working conditions that teachers had campaigned for. The Alliance was also angry that the agreement sold out contract teachers by failing to increase the number of teaching positions.
Some teachers expected a high vote against the deal, however 89% of AEU members voted "yes". Many older and experienced teachers may have voted in favour because they were happy to gain a $10,000-a-year pay increase. However there were other reasons for the overwhelming "yes" vote.
Prior to Brumby's announcement that a deal had been achieved, the AEU was preparing its strongest industrial action. Teachers were preparing to strike during the new national literacy and numeracy tests, which both the federal and state Labor governments had been trumpeting as essential national tests. There was even discussion among teachers' unions in other states about joining the strike action.
The deal meant that the proposed strikes were called off, leaving many teachers believing their trump card had been lost. Many also felt that once the industrial campaign had been halted it would be too hard to restart it. There was also concern that the public would perceive teachers as greedy and unreasonable if they were to continue striking for a better deal.
Additionally, many teachers did not think that the AEU leadership was capable of getting a better deal. The leadership itself had been saying all along that this was the best it could get.
Many teachers reported that union leaders and paid organisers used scare tactics to convince as many as possible to vote "yes". AEU members were told that the government would end the bargaining period and force the union to the arbitration commission, which would grant teachers even less money. Union leaders also said that the government would use Work Choices against teachers.
The challenge for those who argued that the campaign should continue is to build a broad alliance that can effectively challenge the AEU leadership's strategy, which has again left teachers sold short.
[Mary Merkenich is an AEU councillor and member of the Teachers Alliance. A discussion forum is planned for 2pm on July 26 at Dantes Cafe, 150-156 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. Visit http://www.teachers-alliance.org.]