How a union leadership let down 40% of its members

Teachers in Bendigo in 2018. Photo: Australian Education Union Victoria/Facebook

About 60% of Victorian school employees ratified an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) at the end of May, about the same percentage as an earlier vote by members of the Australian Education Union (AEU) who voted 60:40 in favour.

However, these figures disguise the fact that, in some cases, entire schools and regions voted against the EBA. There was considerable disappointment and anger when it became clear it would be approved.

A significant number of people have left the union. A June 15 The Age article headed “Teachers quit union over ‘weakest’ workplace agreement” quoted teachers who had left. One group of 16 teachers, including literacy specialist Dr Karen Lynch from Kew High school, had their letter calling on the AEU officials to resign published. Lynch said she was leaving after being a union member for 20 years.

Kon Rigopoulos, a former president of the AEU sub-branch at Willmott Park Primary School in Craigieburn, along with eight other members, quit the union in protest.

These are only two examples. Prior to the EBA being concluded, many teachers had been posting angry comments to the AEU Facebook page, that were promptly deleted.

It is significant that about 40% voted against a recommendation from the union officials: it underscores the strong opposition to the EBA’s weak proposals on workload relief and fair salaries.

The AEU officials described the new EBA as “a historic win” and used union resources, including emails, the union magazine, posters and visits by union organisers, to push their “Yes” campaign.

Those opposed to the EBA had no such resources.

At the regional ratification meetings, officials cooked up a format to give themselves 30 minutes’ speaking time and further time in debate. No one opposing the EBA was given that time: they were only permitted to join the debate, and only given five minutes.

Adding to this distortion of union democracy, during the final vote AEU officials and the Education Department sent joint emails to all staff, outlining the case for a “Yes” vote.

The EBA has many failings, the most obvious being a wage rise of around 1.5%, not 2%, as officials have wrongly said. While teachers in NSW are describing the government’s 3% wage rise offer as an insult, AEU officials in Victoria are telling us we should be grateful.

Deputy AEU President Justin Mullaly told members that inflation in Victoria was not as high as in the rest of Australia. This was at a time when the government itself was arguing for a 3.5% minimum wage rise because, it said, anything less would not cover inflation.

Workload was the central issue all AEU members wanted addressed. However there was nothing in the EBA about class sizes — a crucial factor in teacher workload, in particular for primary school teachers.

Any so-called reduction in face-to-face teaching relies on 2000 teachers being employed, a factor that now seems doubtful. Currently, teachers are resigning — exacerbating an acute teacher shortage and work pressures in schools.

There is little to attract new teachers.

The “extras” in the log of claims, such as time for meetings, administrative tasks, mandatory observations and answering emails have not been addressed.

The other often-lauded gain — time in lieu — is a bit of flimflam.

“Time in lieu” means teachers would receive financial or time compensation for attending camps, excursions, sporting events and school musicals. This has not been funded in the new EBA, meaning that most government schools, which are in deficit, will not be able to compensate staff.

Principals and teachers recognise this will mean either that camps and excursions will not take place, as they will be too expensive, or they will happen because teachers will continue to participate out of the goodness of their hearts.

A third possibility is that schools will ask parents to pay extra, meaning that some pupils will be able to go and some will not. Such a move simply increases the privatisation of education.

All of this could have been avoided if AEU officials had had the courage to wage a serious industrial campaign. It did not wage an industrial campaign at all, despite many factors in our favour, including that during lockdown and remote teaching parents and the community gained a good insight into the enormous workload teachers do shoulder.

The reality is that AEU officials did not want to upset a Labor government that is about to face an election. Despite Labor being in power since 2014, state schools remain the lowest funded in Australia. It is time for the AEU officials to resign.

[Mary Merkenich is a long-term member of the Australian Education Union.]