Vale Ken Muir: a well respected and lifelong education unionist

Ken Muir. Photo: Mirina Muir

Drought, bushfires and the pandemic have made this a memorable year. It has also recently been marked by the death of Ken Muir, a fine comrade, in Perth where he was living in retirement with his daughter Mirina and grand-daughter Ella.

He died peacefully in palliative care with his family around him, his lifetime partner Marie having succumbed to cancer 18 months ago.

Ken and Marie were a formidable duo, having been active all their lives as defenders of public education through that great union, the NSW Teachers Federation. Founded at the time of the last pandemic in 1919, the Federation was built by generations of teachers such as Ken.

Ken was born in 1928. His grandfather migrated from Scotland in 1910 to escape being blacklisted for his industrial and political activities. Ken’s father was a trade unionist working in the printing industry, so his antecedents for political activism were nourished around the kitchen table.

Naturally, when he became a teacher after his education in NSW at Rose Bay Public School, Cleveland Street Public High and Sydney Teachers College, he joined the NSW Teachers Federation. A young socialist would have been inspired by the then-communist leadership of the Federation, at the height of the Cold War in 1950.

That leadership stood out among teacher unions in Australia, having led the union to affiliate in 1942 with a Communist-led NSW Labor Council. It felt the full brunt of ruling class hatred. But Ken was “on the side of the angels”. He fought back, supporting the left leadership which succeeded in cementing the gains of the 1940s.

Some battles continue. Ken was ordered off school property during a school fete in 1951, when he was teaching in country NSW at Scone High School at the school fete. Why? Because he was handing out leaflets promoting Commonwealth funding for public schools: this was the McCarthyist era in Menzies’ Australia.

In 2020, we are still fighting for this funding from Menzies’ successors via the Federation’s “Gonski Funding Campaign” 70 years on!

Wherever Ken taught, he was the school union delegate, attending local Teachers Association meetings, State Council Meetings and Annual Conferences.

As a member of the left-progressive dominant faction of Federation he was always supportive of militant action to further the interests of students and teachers in our public primary/secondary/TAFE education systems. He helped build and maintain the left-militant culture for which the federation is noted.

But, as Ken often said, successful militancy requires good preparation exampled by the first state-wide strike of Federation members in 1968. It wasn’t about wages, but class sizes that was the gripe, and it was magnificently supported by the membership and, remarkably, also by the general public.

Even after he retired from teaching, Ken remained active in the union’s Retired Teachers Association and also found time to fight South African Apartheid through the Mandela Foundation.

As a member and supporter of Socialist Alliance he contributed where he could, such as billeting visiting United States’ comrade Paul Le Blanc at one of our conferences a few years ago.

Ken was an internationalist but reserved special place in his heart for Scotland, the home of his ancestors. He always loved to hear the playing of bagpipes. They struck a chord.

Ken worked all his life for a more just and equitable society. He was ever aware of the negative

impact of neoliberal philosophy — where public policy is dominated by the balance sheet and pushes aside the humanistic values that make our world a better place. He spent his life working to balance those inequalities.