In elections held last month for officers and councillors in the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union (AEU), all state councillors who are members of the opposition grouping Teachers Alliance (TA) were returned. The group's candidates won an average overall vote of 25%.
In contrast to the incumbent branch leadership, headed by president Mary Bluett and secretary Brian Henderson, which has been in office since 1997, TA called for an end to contract teaching, abolition of the hated Victorian Institute of Teaching, state-wide compulsory teaching conditions, real improvements in working conditions, an increase in funding to schools and total opposition to the private-public partnership model of funding school infrastructure.
The election result was significant because TA has never run in AEU elections before. TA comprises over-worked classroom teachers who had only $600 to spend on the election campaign (compared to around $20,000 expenditure by the Bluett-Henderson group). The latter did a direct mail-out to all members; the TA was only able to mail union delegates.
In its letter to members, the incumbent leadership red-baited TA, claiming it had "extreme left-wing views" without any explanation of what these views might be. The incumbents also accused its opponents of having a "grab bag of populist, unattainable policies".
TA advocated returning the union to the membership by re-introducing the principle of electing union organisers, as well as office bearers. Henderson used scare tactics to attack this policy, stating in a letter to the AEU's magazine: "AEU members should understand that the only way this policy can be implemented is either to use John Howard's new industrial laws to sack the 22 organisers and two industrial officers for 'operational reasons', or to pay out millions of dollars to staff for breach of contract." He did not consider the possibility of negotiation and allowing contracts to expire.
Henderson also wrote: "AEU members are well served by staff members who do not depend on their employment through political patronage of whoever the AEU leadership is at election time." However, elected organisers would not depend on "political patronage" because their employer would be the people who voted for them, AEU members!
The TA is now working to encourage many more teachers to become active in their union. The most immediate issue is the fight for a log of claims that addresses the concerns of teachers and allied staff. To contact the Teachers Alliance, visit <http://www.teachersalliance.net> or email <firstname.lastname@example.org>.