Standing up for AEU activists


In September 2006, Roger Harris, a teacher at Chisholm Institute of Technology (Victoria) and an Australian Education Union member for 23 years, was stood down by the Chisholm management. Harris had been an active union member, playing a central role on the sub-branch executive for 16 years and has served on the AEU's TAFE sector council for 10 years.

Chisholm management stated that there were allegations that he had harassed and bullied managers and other staff over a period of seven years. No specific information or any formal written allegations were given to Harris. Prior to this case, another AEU member at Chisholm's Berwick campus was accused of bullying her manager and of being an occupational health and safety (OH&S) risk to the manager and her colleagues. A private investigation company, Stopline, was engaged to "look into" the case. The member concerned stated that she had been bullied by the manager, but her claims were dismissed.

The central AEU branch took over the case and did not consult or inform the local sub-branch. When the sub-branch did enquire, it was told that due to "confidentiality" no information could be released. The sub-branch later found out that the member's employment had been terminated.

The sub-branch's executive strongly warned the AEU TAFE sector vice-president, Robert Stewart, and their AEU organiser that the use of OH&S provisions and private investigators to target "difficult" unionists set a dangerous precedent. The sub-branch passed a motion on the issue, but the motion was prevented from going to the TAFE sector council meeting.

Two other Chisholm teachers who were sessional (casual/contract) staff in the same department as Harris made complaints about the department's manager. Their contracts were not renewed. Other sessional teachers were employed to teach the modules they had previously taught.

Karl Schneider, assistant secretary of the AEU Chisholm sub-branch, doesn't believe that Harris is guilty of bullying. According to Schneider, Harris has been forceful in standing up for the rights of AEU members and consequently has had confrontations with management over industrial questions. Schneider believes that Harris has been victimised by management because of his union activism.

After Harris was stood down, he approached the central AEU leadership for help. Stewart advised him to accept a redundancy package. At this stage Chisholm released no details about the allegations, and no formal written complaints were presented. Chisholm management stated that if Harris didn't accept the offer, Stopline would begin an investigation and that another financial offer would not be made. Stewart told Harris he had only one week to decide if he would accept the redundancy offer, and if he did he would have to sign a secrecy clause. There was no suggestion of challenging the allegations or the procedures used by Chisholm.

At the age of 51, with minimal prospects for alternative secure employment, Harris was quite unhappy with this response. He got in contact with Teachers Alliance, a rank-and-file group in the AEU, to seek its assistance. Teachers Alliance suggested that, as a starting point, he needed to speak with senior union officials, such as Victorian AEU president Mary Bluett and secretary Brian Henderson.

AEU members at Chisholm's Frankston campus held at least four meetings to discuss the case, each drawing at least 35 members. At the first meeting, a motion was unanimously passed calling on the AEU central executive to give Harris legal assistance. The Chisholm AEU sub-branch executive and Harris, who was still part of the sub-branch executive, then met with Henderson and Gillian Robertson, the AEU's TAFE vice-president. Henderson agreed that the AEU would support engaging the services of law firm Holding & Redlich to help Harris. However the AEU state executive decided the union would only continue to support Harris's case if he met 50% of the estimated $50,000 court costs.

Members of the Chisholm sub-branch believed this decision represented a lack of solidarity and a motion calling on the AEU to fully fund the legal costs was unanimously passed. However, the AEU's TAFE council rejected this. As a result several Chisholm AEU members have resigned from the union.

So far six Chisholm staff have been disciplined by the institute using OH&S legislation. Three of them have left. The others have been fined amounts ranging from four weeks' to three months' pay.

Harris felt that he had no choice but to accept a financial settlement that included a confidentiality clause, so he cannot speak about the case. He is now trying to rebuild his career.

Harris's case highlights a worrying trend, especially for TAFE AEU members. There are allegations that a similar incident occurred at the Victorian Institute of Technology.

If management in one education sector is able to get rid of union activists and scare others into not sticking up for their rights, it will become a model for administrators, principals and managers in other sectors.

It is therefore extremely important that the AEU leadership challenge these processes and demand that transparent, fair procedures be put in place and used. This should include the elimination of "confidentiality" in these cases.

[Mary Merkenich is an AEU state councillor and a member of Teachers Alliance.]