Two thousand striking Technical and Further Education (TAFE) teachers gathered at Melbourne's Atheneum Theatre on August 20 to demand better pay and conditions. The last time Victorian TAFE teachers went on strike was under Jeff Kennett's Coalition state government 13 years ago.
Hundreds of classes were cancelled and many campuses across the state closed as Melbourne teachers were joined by strikers from regional towns such as Warrnambool, Shepparton, Ballarat and Bendigo.
The Australian Education Union (AEU) launched the industrial action after enterprise agreement negotiations with the TAFE Employers Association collapsed. Victorian TAFE teachers are employed directly by TAFE institutes, not by the state government.
The AEU wants a single agreement across the sector and served its log of claims, which includes a 10% per year pay rise for each of the three years of the agreement, to the employer body in August 2007. TAFE directors and the state government have refused to agree to more than a 3.25% pay increase offer and want to move teachers onto individual contracts with longer working hours and larger class sizes.
Victorian AEU president Mary Bluett told the mass meeting that Victoria's TAFE sector is the most underfunded in Australia and the exodus of teachers from TAFE will continue unless the teachers win this dispute.
Victorian TAFE teachers, who haven't had a pay rise since September 2006, earn $13,000 per year less than the state's school teachers and $21,000 less than their NSW counterparts.
ACTU president Sharan Burrow addressed the meeting and called on the state government to pull the TAFE directors into line. However, Labor Premier John Brumby was reported in the media that day as saying, "This is not a dispute with the Victorian government; this is an industrial dispute between the TAFE teachers and their employer, who is the TAFE system".
The meeting also voiced its opposition to the state government's plans to restructure the Victorian TAFE sector to — supposedly — "address Victoria's skill shortage". If implemented, the proposal would privatise the sector, increase fees and introduce a HECS-style student loan system.
The National Tertiary Education Union and AEU "Our TAFEs Matter" campaign is demanding that the government massively increase funding to the sector instead, arguing that it is a decade of severe neglect of the TAFE system, combined with competition from an increasing number of private operators, that has been responsible for Victoria's skill shortage.
According to a student from Dandenong TAFE who attended the meeting, private childcare operator ABC Learning Centres offers an eight-month crash course in child care that is equivalent to a two-year TAFE course.
The meeting voted unanimously to endorse an industrial campaign of 24-hour and four-hourly stoppages on a statewide/regional and institute basis, to be approved by the Adult Provision Council meeting on September 12. The teachers also voted to make full use of the media in their campaign and to lobby state politicians.
Chanting "What do we want? What we are worth!", the teachers marched to state parliament to call on Brumby to help settle the dispute.