Thousands of government and private school teachers plus education support (ES) staff will stop work for 24 hours on February 14. They will attend two separate stop work meetings, then join to march together on the Victorian parliament to show their determination to win better working conditions and pay.
Why are teachers and ES staff striking?
Their Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) campaign is now in its second year. Despite two 24-hour strikes, a series of regional half-day stoppages and bans, there has been no progress. Over the past decade, the working conditions of teachers and education support staff have significantly worsened and Victorian government schools are the lowest funded in Australia. The government spends $1100 below the national average per student.
Teachers have larger classes and more classes to teach. This means more preparation and correction, much of which is done out of school hours. They also have more extra duties to undertake.
Larger classes result in less individual time spent with each student. They also make class management much more difficult.
Similarly, working conditions have become worse for ES staff. They are expected to complete more essential tasks with less staff, resources and time.
Forty-five percent of education support staff — clerical workers, integration assistants, library technicians — are employed on temporary contracts. About 18% of teaching staff, and the 40% of graduate teachers, are also employed on temporary contracts, with no certainty of renewal and little job security.
Baillieu’s broken promises
Premier Ted Baillieu has broken a key election promise to teachers. In the lead-up to the election, he said without qualification that it would “make Victorian teachers the highest paid in the nation”. Now the government says public sector wage agreements above 2.5% a year would have to be “offset by commensurate productivity improvements”. Unions point out that this is below the inflation rate of 2.7%.
The broken promise will leave Victorian teachers the lowest paid in Australia. Teachers in Western Australia and New South Wales at the top of the incremental scale are paid $7441 and $2822 respectively more than Victorian teachers for doing the same work.
The Australian Education Union (AEU) is seeking a 12.6% pay rise over three years.
The AEU says it would be impossible to achieve productivity gains of the scale the government wants without cutting teacher numbers. Baillieu promised before the last election that his government “will not cut teacher numbers and we remain committed to maintaining the current student-to-teacher ratios in our classrooms”.
In January, the government told the AEU that including maximum class sizes in their EBA was illegal under industrial law and the government wanted it removed from any agreement or it would pursue legal action to halt any further industrial action by the AEU.
Further, they also wanted to exclude references to reduction in contract employment.
The government says it wants to improve the quality of education that schools can deliver, but instead its actions will mean larger classes, more casual teachers and ES staff.
This fight for a fair EBA is also about the standard of education for Victorian children.
An effective industrial campaign
The AEU has been campaigning for a new EBA for two years. Teachers and ES staff have enthusiastically supported this campaign with two 24-hour strikes and a series of regional half-day stoppages, various bans and now a 38-hour week campaign. There has been no progress.
Obviously the Baillieu government does not feel under enough pressure to seriously negotiate, let alone agree to the AEU’s demands.
AEU members involved in the rank-and-file group Teachers & ES Alliance (TESA) believe it is time to strengthen the industrial campaign.
Tess Lee Ack from TESA said, “We need to put the government under constant, sustained pressure. Right now, with the government attempting to have our campaign declared illegal by Fair Work Australia, we need to send a strong signal that we are determined not only to continue our fight, but to escalate it. This means several things: most importantly, being prepared to strike for longer than one day, and closing as many schools as possible.”
The AEU’s practice of agreeing to negotiate confidentially needs to be abandoned so that all AEU members have access to the government’s proposals and those of the union negotiators. The campaign in the long term will be successful only if the members are fully informed and have the opportunity to direct negotiators.
This was not the case recently when the AEU executive decided to reduce a pay claim of 30% over three years to 12.6% over three years. In that instance, even the AEU State Council was not consulted.
Linking with the community
There are excellent opportunities to establish links with the broader community. The connection between this fight and the fight for a high quality education for all children is obvious.
Consequently, Bronwyn Jennings from TESA points out: “We should also be more proactively building public support — organising local and regional public meetings, rallies and flash mobs, taking our message out onto the streets, into the shopping centres etc., using leaflets and petitions — and making as much noise and fuss as possible.”
This strategy would make the AEU campaign more powerful and effective.
[Mary Merkenich is a member of Socialist Alliance, the AEU member and the Teachers & ES Alliance.]