Victorian teachers’ dispute not just about pay

Teachers march on Victorian parliament, September 5. Photo: Tony Iltis

More than 400 schools were closed across Victoria on September 5 by a one-day strike by teachers, principals and education support (ES) workers. About 40,000 workers in the sector stayed away from work. About 20,000 took to the streets of Melbourne.

The 15,000-seat Rod Lever Arena was filled to capacity by a mass meeting of Australian Education Union members that work at government schools. More than 4000 members of the Independent Education Union, employed in the Catholic school system, held their own stop-work meeting despite Catholic education bosses having obtained a Fair Work Australia order prohibiting them from doing so.

Following the mass meetings, both groups marched through the city and converged on Parliament house together with delegations from other trade unions.

The mainstream media has reported the teachers' long running campaign as a pay dispute. Teachers in the state system, whose wages have fallen behind inflation, are asking for an increase of 30% over 3 years. The government has offered just 2.5% a year.

But the dispute is more about teachers' working conditions — which are also students' learning conditions. Nineteen percent of teachers and 45% of ES workers are employed on temporary contracts.

AEU members are demanding a maximum class size of 20, a reduction in the number of subjects taught and an increase in permanent positions.

However, not only is the Bailleu Liberal state government refusing to consider improvements to conditions — it is trying to make them worse.

Government proposals include attacking seniority so that only 80% of teachers progress up the salary scale each year, paying teachers differently depending on which subject they teach and making them work an extra teaching hour each week.

But the proposal that has teachers most incensed is to introduce so-called performance pay, which will use arbitrary measures to quantify the performance of teachers, affecting how much they will be paid. This would force teachers to compete against each other, reward those who focus solely on the most educationally privileged students and punish teachers whose schools serve disadvantaged communities.

The AEU mass meeting was prolonged and lively. Members voted for a campaign of rolling half-day stoppages in Term 4 of this year and to continue work bans, including bans on report writing and attending some meetings. If these have not changed the government's intransigent attitude, another one-day strike will be held on February 14, next year.

However, many AEU members at the mass-meeting argued for a quicker tempo of industrial action. A motion calling for a campaign of regional stoppages and rallies and a one-day strike at the start of Term 4 gained a fair degree of support but was defeated.

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