Victorian teachers vote “yes” to agreement but are deeply divided

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On 5 May, the Victorian Premier, John Brumby, announced that he had struck a deal

with the Australian Education Union (AEU), bringing the tenacious 16-month campaign

for a new Victorian Government Schools Agreement to an end. In November 2007 and

February 2008, teachers had turned out for the biggest stopwork meetings and rallies

in the union’s history. Victorian teachers were furious with their position as the lowest

paid teachers in the country. The February mass meeting kicked off months of rolling

stoppages and protests outside the offices of state parliamentarians. Inspired by the

struggle, new members flooded in and public support for the teachers’ campaign reached

an unprecedented 85%!


Angry teachers march through Melbourne, 14 Feb 2008.
Photo by Jason Smith, The Age

Branch President, Mary Bluett, described the result as a “huge victory,” but a significant

section of the union’s membership sees things differently. The agreement delivered a

$5,000 pay rise for graduate teachers and $10,000 for those at the top of the salary scale,

but it overlooked all those in the middle. The campaign had also focused on addressing

the overuse of non-tenured contract teaching and horrendous teacher workloads. The final

agreement did little to address these vital issues.

In the end, 89% of sub-branch representatives who attended ratification meetings voted

for the agreement. The meeting held at the AEU office in Abbotsford was the most

passionate, with 25% of representatives at the standing room only meeting voting “No.”

This meeting also debated the ratification process. A proposal to scrap the delegated

system of ratification meetings and replace it with the more democratic procedure of

holding mass meetings, where rank-and-file members could hear the debate and then

vote, was defeated.

We are delighted to publish an opinion piece by AEU member, Peter Curtis. Curtis is a

supporter of the rank-and-file group, Teachers Alliance, made up of grassroots teachers

who know the real mood in schools. It argues the importance of understanding why 89%

of those attending the ratification meetings voted “Yes.” Many teachers believed that

once the industrial campaign had been halted, it would be too hard to restart the campaign

again and that the union had lost its trump card by calling off the campaign just before

the national literacy and numeracy tests. Teachers Alliance says, “many of those who

voted ‘Yes’ did so because they felt they had no choice. The AEU Leadership took away

our choice!” But, argues Teachers Alliance, it is vital to stay in the union, seek out like-
minded members and organise! The Freedom Socialist Party agrees.

Opinion

Mary Bluett, the president of Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union (AEU),

defended a deeply divisive pay deal — with gains won for teachers at the top and bottom

of the scale — by saying “you are a long time at the top.”

It is not unreasonable to suggest that some of the union leadership have been too long

at the top. Spending some time at the bottom of the class may bring them back to earth.

While the majority voted at the ratification meetings to accept the deal, this belies

the deep divisions and discontent with the AEU leadership in Victoria and with the

ALP governments, both state and federal. The question we ask is, who is representing

“working families?”

The AEU officials may like to maintain the pretence of political independence from

their ALP masters, but sealing the deal with a kiss between Mary Bluett and Premier

John Brumby 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. Both the union leadership and the ALP have displayed contempt for

any claim that they genuinely represent “working families.”

It is clear that the conditions of daily life are getting worse rather than better. Rest

assured it will be global and national economic and political events that will eventually

burst the bubble that our current union leaders live in. From truck drivers in Spain, to

teachers in Pakistan, from taxi drivers in Melbourne, to fishermen in Lakes Entrance,

workers are being forced to protest against the impact of rising global oil prices on our

lives. Those who suggest that arguing to continue the campaign was just being “radical”

betray their naiveté. Workers have car tanks to fill, mortgages or rent to pay, food to be

put on the table and children to clothe.

Attracted by the enthusiasm and heightened expectations of their fellow teachers,

unprecedented numbers of teachers joined the union in a short time – 5,000-plus over a

period of five months. Some principals actively encouraged their staff to join the union

and involve themselves in the campaign. Time and again the point was made that the

AEU campaign was not just a wage claim. Of equal importance was improving the

condition of state schools and addressing the very significant workload issues we will

still have to deal with.

The damage done to the growing solidarity and strengthening of the union — from

graduates to principals — is the most gut-wrenching aspect of prematurely “kissing off”

our campaign. Whatever the future holds for us, there is one guarantee, and that is we

will only get the strength we need from the collective, organised strength of the union.

Whatever we think of this deal, it is an absolute truth that it would not have been won

without the collective strength and activity of union members.

The negotiations were never in “good faith” on the government’s part. Can we forget

how Minister for Education, 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 WorkChoices

legislation that their federal counterparts wish to 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 massive public support we did when we were

forced to undertake a prolonged campaign of industrial action.

The collective welfare and the goodwill of our union’s members have been sacrificed

for political expediency, saving face for the state and federal governments, by pushing

a deal through so as not to upset the national testing program. The announcement by the

union that there was an overwhelming “Yes” vote does not represent the sentiments of all

the membership. The extreme differences between the outcomes for teachers at different

stages of their working lives — accomplished teachers did very badly while graduates

and expert teachers won significant wage catch-ups — 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. The union leadership should have warned them off. It begs belief

that AEU officials 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 with all bets

off, and that would then mean remounting the campaign which would then “alienate the

community” who had supported us.

Many teachers felt that they had no choice but to vote “Yes” to the agreement. They

felt that if the union leaders were saying it was a good deal, then it was unlikely that

they would have the necessary fire in the belly to reignite the campaign. It is true that

once an industrial campaign has been wound down, the impetus is lost. The proper

process would have been to present objectively the terms of the agreement that had been

negotiated to that point and then put the pros and cons to the members for discussion.

Instead they assumed that there would be agreement and that their 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 state branch of the

union, and the union movement more broadly. Let us not waste the good work done to

build the union to date — we all have a better world to win.

The words penned by Ben Mulvogue in 1915, as secretary of the Builders Labourers

Federation, still resound today: “The union has made possible progress not only for the

working people, but advancement in many other directions — morally, socially, and

intellectually — and is traceable to the existence of the organisation of the workers.”

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