By Paul Howes
After several successful walkouts, secondary students in Melbourne and Sydney have decided to set up unions to campaign against education funding cuts and other issues affecting secondary students. The Sydney union, the United Secondary Students Union, was formed out of the group Students Against the Cuts (SAC) which organised the 2000-strong walkout on August 29. The Melbourne union, which has the same name, was formed from a similar background.
Delegations from both unions travelled to Canberra last week to voice their concerns over the Coalition government's cuts to the education sector. They met with Senator Amanda Vanstone's chief of staff, John Nation; ALP shadow minister for education, Peter Baldwin; Democrat's youth spokesperson, Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja; and Greens Senator Dee Margetts.
Nation attempted to intimidate and patronise the delegation. When NSW activist Justin asked why the delegation couldn't see Vanstone, Nation replied that she was "too busy" and had "no time for minors". Nation also spent a large part of the meeting quizzing the students on their age and arguing that, legally, 11 year-old "minors" could not join the union.
Conveniently forgetting the last 13 years of federal education cuts and the NSW Labor government's attacks on youth, Baldwin affirmed the ALP's "support for youth" and claimed that his party is 100% behind the secondary student unions.
Stott-Despoja said the Democrats would block all the adverse changes to education in the budget and stated that her party "supports publicly funded education on every level and ... opposes any form of fees and charges". She promised to table a letter from the unions in parliament. Senator Dee Margetts also offered her support to the new unions and said that the Green's alternative to the education cuts was to look at raising taxes.
The new unions' aim to encourage high school students around Australia to get active in campaigns. With several walkouts being planned for the next school term, the unions are not prepared to rely on parliamentarians to defend young people from attacks on their right to education.