Following an extended industrial campaign by the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union for better wages and conditions including smaller class sizes, Victorian Premier John Brumby announced on May 5 that an agreement had been reached with the union. The deal, which was later ratified by union members, awarded vastly different pay rates to different groups of teachers and failed to address the key issues raised in the teachers' campaign. The following is a response by AEU member and Teachers Alliance supporter Peter Curtis.
While the majority of teachers voted at the ratification meetings to accept the deal, it belies the deep divisions and discontent among teachers with the Victorian AEU leadership and with the ALP governments both state and federal. The question we ask is, who is representing working families?
The AEU leadership may like to maintain the pretence of political independence from its ALP masters, but sealing the deal with a kiss reveals that our leadership's special relationship with the ALP is much too intimate. This same state government chooses to denigrate the collective actions of concerned and responsible citizens through the corporate mass media, bankrupting them in the courts and generally avoiding any serious public discussion and dialogue about any of our concerns.
Whatever we think of this deal, it would not have been won without the collective strength and activity of union members. Attracted by the enthusiasm and heightened expectations of their fellow teachers, unprecedented numbers of teachers joined the union in a short time. Time and again the point was made that the campaign was not just a wage claim, but, equally importantly, it was about improving the condition of state schools and addressing the very significant workload issues we will still have to deal with.
The negotiations were never in "good faith" on the government's part. Can we forget how education minister Bronwyn Pike accused teachers of stealing time from their students, and defrauding the government over curriculum days as extra holidays? The state government's preferred bargaining method was to use the reactionary Work Choices legislation that their federal counterparts wish to largely retain.
The government's belligerence further fuelled the ongoing campaign of our detractors who undermine and malign the work of thousands of teachers in the public education sector. That was obvious to all the community, and it is why we received the support we did when we were forced to undertake a prolonged campaign of industrial action.
The overwhelming "yes" vote does not represent the sentiments of all the membership. Accomplished teachers did very badly while graduates and expert teachers won significant wage catch-ups and that is the reason why sub-branches and staff rooms are deeply divided on the wages issue.
The government's premature announcement of a done deal to the press before union members saw the terms of the agreement, let alone ratified it, was a mischievous act of political sabotage. It beggars belief that our leadership had no control over the government's actions. The union leadership threatened that if we voted "no" we would have to go back to square one and remount the campaign, which would then "alienate the community" who had supported us.
Many teachers felt that they had no choice but to vote "yes". The insistence of union leaders that it was a good deal suggested that it was unlikely they would have the necessary fire in the belly to reignite the campaign. Instead the leadership assumed there would be agreement and that its job was to "sell" it to us. Treating members with such contempt can only weaken the union by encouraging counterproductive cynicism.
We need a union leadership that is not afraid of its members and instead encourages us to voice our concerns and actively participate in our sub-branches, in the union state branch and the labour movement generally. Let us not waste the good work done to build the union to date; we all have a better world to win.