Teachers challenge officials in education union elections

September 26, 2009

Every three years the Australian Education Union (AEU), which covers teachers and other eduction workers in government schools, holds elections for all union representatives in the four sectors (early childhood, primary, secondary and TAFE). The elections include all senior officer positions and the AEU state branch council.

The elections are conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission and voting will take place from October 5 to October 26.

The AEU's current full-time officials are headed by Victorian branch president Mary Bluett, who has been in that position for more than 20 years. Others in her team have also been full-time officials for many years.

The incumbents are being challenged in these elections by candidates for the Teachers Alliance, all of who are practising classroom teachers. Some are also elected AEU branch councillors.

Mary Merkenich, the Teachers Alliance candidate for branch president, told Green Left Weekly: "For a long time we have felt that the current officials have not been able to defend state education. In fact, they have presided over the closure and forced amalgamation of many government schools.

"Also, the low funding of government schools has meant that teachers' working conditions have not improved for more than 20 years, and in fact have deteriorated. Much school infrastructure has not been upgraded and facilities are second rate.

"For example, I work in a small office into which 11 teachers are crammed. If I push my chair back a couple of feet I bump into my colleague sitting behind me."

Merkenich added: "Teachers work lots of unpaid overtime preparing classes, doing corrections, writing student reports, contacting parents and attending endless meetings. Many teachers are contract workers who have no long-term security and have to continually re-apply for jobs. Some have been on contract seven or more years.

"In the TAFE sector, the extent of casualisation is deplorable. Casual relief teachers are the lowest paid in Australia and their working conditions have worsened as well."

Merkenich said Bluett and her team have done nothing to seriously address any of these issues: "That's why we formed Teachers Alliance and are contesting these elections."

Commenting on the pay rises won by the AEU in its last round of enterprise bargaining, Merkenich explained: "Some teachers won a well-deserved and long-overdue pay rise, which went some way to addressing the low pay levels of teachers in Victoria.

"However, it was a divisive and unjust pay deal because many teachers received no more than the 3.25% increase offered to all teachers by the state government from the outset of our campaign.

"Those teachers went on strike alongside of the rest of us, sacrificed pay and campaigned hard because we all believed, and were all told by the union officials, that 3.25% was way too little. Many of those teachers were bitterly disappointed about being sacrificed so that Mary Bluett and [Premier] John Brumby could tell the public they had a deal."

Merkenich added that many other teachers were outraged that their colleagues had been sold short and a significant number of younger teachers left the union.

On the issue of the federal Labor government's "performance pay" policy, Merkenich said: "All educators agree that teaching is a team process and the results — students' learning — cannot be absolutely quantified or measured.

"Teachers teach more than facts or numbers. Our aim is to teach skills, critical thinking and values. Moreover, performance pay aims to reward only a few and to give the government permission to deny the vast majority of teachers wage justice. It is just another way to cut government spending to public education."

The Bluett leadership formally opposes performance pay. However, Merkenich said, "they propose an alternative that they call 'professional pay', which would also mean that only some teachers receive a pay increase, and only if they meet certain criteria.

"Bluett's model would also pit teacher against teacher and is, in essence, a watered-down version of performance pay. It would open the door and give legitimacy to the idea that teachers need to compete to be valued."

Merkenich said the Teachers Alliance believes that reducing teachers' workload is crucial. "Part of this is having smaller class sizes. Education unions should be campaigning for maximum class sizes of 20 so that teachers can teach more effectively. The students will be winners as well.

"There also has to be wage justice for all pay levels across all sectors. Contract and sessional teaching must be abolished, and a big increase in funding to all state schools is necessary."

All Teacher Alliance candidates are active in their AEU sub-branches and some have been elected to the AEU state council. Merkenich explained: "It is important to elect practising classroom teachers, who know how excessive workloads impact on our ability to teach and adversely affect our personal health."

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.