'No deal' say Victorian teachers

Issue 

Victorian Premier John Brumby announced on May 5 that a deal had been struck with the Australian Education Union. While Mary Bluett, AEU branch president, described it as "the deal we were fighting for", many union members are furious with the agreement made on their behalf.

The AEU ran a 16-month long industrial campaign for a reduction in class sizes and for better pay and teaching conditions, including the length of lesson times. Due to the great campaign, the teachers had the support of 85% of Victorians.

The AEU repeatedly claimed to be fighting for parity with NSW teachers. But the deal with the Brumby government delivers parity with NSW only for teachers in the top and the bottom classifications. The agreement offers vastly different pay rates to different groups of teachers, and so is very divisive.

It takes 11 years for a Victorian teacher to reach the highest pay bracket, compared to only eight years in NSW. Under the proposed pay deal, Victorian teachers will catch up with their NSW counterparts in their 13th year.

But the teacher's campaign was never just about decent wages. It was also about reducing class sizes, teaching loads in primary schools and reducing the number of class periods (to 20 x 50 minutes) in secondary schools, which the proposed agreement doesn't do.

This disappointing agreement exposes the AEU leadership's unwillingness to continue to fight for teachers' work place rights. Since the 1999 election of ALP state governments, the AEU proposed two similarly poor agreements and, under pressure, teachers accepted them. This is why Victorian teachers are the lowest paid in Australia.

This agreement, if carried, will entrench the burdensome workload until at least the end of 2011. It also does nothing to have conditions uniformly applied.

AEU members' letters to the Melbourne Age described the deal as a "slap in the face", "a pay cut" and that they felt "screwed over". Many teachers are so angry they have threatened to quit the union. Noble Park teacher Adrienne Koss said that she went on strike several times, but felt that with this deal she had been dudded. "What I was hoping for was a more considerate deal for every level of teaching", she said.

Teachers now fear that mid-career colleagues will leave the profession, exacerbating the teacher shortage and putting more pressure on working conditions.

Bluett has talked up the deal on new teachers' contracts, which now allow any teacher on a one-year contract to be automatically paid over the January holidays. It will also be easier for these teachers to qualify to be rolled over to a permanent position.

But the agreement doesn't increase the number of teacher positions, and therefore does not significantly reduce contract teaching.

Another supposed gain is that the government will monitor contracts. But watching contracts doesn't reduce them: the government and the AEU have been watching them for the last eight years and they are still at higher levels than under the Kennett Liberal government.

Norrian Rundle from the Teachers Alliance, a group of teacher activists within the union, told Green Left Weekly, "It makes being a contract teacher somewhat nicer, but it doesn't offer long-term security". Rundle added: "Hard work and commitment is demanded of contact teachers, but this isn't recognised by the latest deal".

The Teachers Alliance is calling on teachers to vote down the deal at the ratification meetings from June 2-12 and is urging AEU members and teachers to continue the fight for better pay and conditions. It believes a vote against the deal would send a clear message to the AEU leadership that members want it to renegotiate a better deal that includes genuine pay rises for all, as well as better conditions.

Some teachers fear that public support for their campaign will wain, especially after a media campaign against their bid for higher pay rates.

The Teachers Alliance argues that if the campaign were to refocus on conditions, class sizes, contract teaching as well as wage justice, the community would continue to support the teachers.

"Many members have said that they will leave the union as a result of this agreement, but the better option is to stay in, become active and build the union", said Michael O'Reilly, an activist in the Teachers Alliance.

"It is the strength and resolve of members that determines the strength of the union and it is time for a leadership that reflects this. If this divisive agreement is voted down, this will force the leadership to go back and negotiate a better deal that includes genuine pay rises for all and improve everyone's conditions."

O'Reilly told GLW he is confident of gaining public support for a better deal as "We will be fighting for the conditions that put students first, which is what education should be about".

[Mary Merkenich is an Australian Education Union councillor and Teachers Alliance member. Visit alliance.org for more information.]