NSW teachers reject government 'insult'
By Tom Flanagan
SYDNEY — At least 20,000 teachers marched on New South Wales parliament on November 18 to protest against the government's pay and conditions proposal. Some estimates put the attendance at half the state's total number of 55,000 teachers. Primary, secondary and TAFE teachers attended the city rally, while elsewhere in the state protests were held outside the electorate offices of members of parliament.
The protest defied an Australian Industrial Relations Commission directive. It was triggered by an offer from the Bob Carr Labor government that would mean teachers' pay would be unlikely even to keep pace with inflation.
The offer contrasts with comments by education minister John Aquilina before the state election in March that if he made teachers a wage offer that only matched inflation, "They'd lynch me, and understandably so."
Changes in the proposed new award include extending normal working hours to any time between 7am and 10pm Monday to Saturday. Schools are to be open for 50 weeks each year. Other proposed changes include increasing face-to-face teaching hours by 10-25% and reducing leave entitlements.
The document argues, "The award reflects the modern educational environment and builds into work practices the flexibility required to maintain the Department's capacity to meet the challenges presented by increased competition among education service providers".
Speakers at the rally told a quite different story, of the shortcomings of the NSW education system and the changes needed.
Sui Lin, an art teacher from Moree High School in the remote north of the state, told the rally that the new award fails to address the inability of schools in the bush to attract teachers. "There is already a teacher shortage", she said.
She mentioned a business studies class which had had six different teachers this year, only two of whom had any previous experience teaching in the subject area.
Lin spoke of three local schools which draw on the services of one casual teacher to fill gaps caused by the absence of regular teachers. Under the new award, that casual teacher will receive $40 less a day.
Max Perry, from the Cooma College of TAFE, explained that full- time staff numbers there had fallen by 50% over the last decade, staff now being called upon to work 20% longer for less pay. "We feel angry, betrayed and deceived", Perry told the crowd.
The government proposal contrasts with the claim by the NSW Teachers Federation in August 1998, which called for a minimum 7.5% per year salary increase and addressed a range of equity issues. While the Education Department has avoided negotiating the teachers' claim for the last 15 months, it went to the Industrial Relations Commission within three days of announcing its own offer.
At the end of a very spirited rally, thousands of copies of the award document, many screwed up and defaced, were passed hand to hand over the heads of the crowd and thrown over the fence which separated teachers from the parliament building.
Teachers Federation president Sue Simpson compared the NSW Labor proposals to the actions of Jeff Kennett's recently defeated Coalition government in Victoria. She pointed out that the new Labor government there has already had to budget an extra $10 million for TAFE, to deal with the impact of Kennett's competition policy. She demanded that the NSW government accept responsibility for funding public education.
Simpson described the salaries offer as "insulting", and pointed out that the government was blaming teachers for the inadequacy of government funding. Government tactics were trying to pit the community against teachers and to sideline the union.
Messages read out to the rally included one from the Federation of Parents and Citizens Associations, which called for the withdrawal of the Education Department proposal.
John Robertson, acting secretary of the NSW Labor Council, told the rally, "It's an absolute disgrace that a Labor government seeks to circumvent a trade union and go directly to the membership".
Robertson told the protesting teachers, "We have a minister who has been captured by the bureaucrats". The crowd responded with chants of "Sack him, sack him".
While the government is intransigent, the teachers are showing the way. By continuing to mobilise against the government they can maintain their enthusiasm and solidarity and put public pressure on the government. Combined with ongoing efforts to explain their case to students, parents and the wider community, this could very well defeat the government.