Former union leaders from the Australian Education Union (AEU) sub-branch at Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE (NMIT) are prepared to campaign for as long as it takes to bring the union busting management at the Institute to heel. The No More Intimidation of Teacher (NMIT) Unionists Campaign Committee, established at an AEU sub-branch stopwork meeting last April, continues to build a high-profile union and community campaign to expose discriminatory practices at the Institute.
Defending the right to be outspoken. At the heart of the NMIT Unionists campaign are two complaints lodged with the Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission.
The first case was brought by Barbara Morgan. Morgan, a former secretary of the AEU sub-branch, experienced blatant discrimination in the middle of 1996. Employed at the Institute for many years on regularly renewed fixed-term contracts, Morgan was acknowledged as a committed and innovative English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher as well as an outspoken leader of the local union branch.
In the middle of a hard-fought enterprise bargaining dispute, Morgan’s contract was not renewed. At the same time, management employed new contract staff to teach in ESL programs. No one was fooled by this crude anti-union bullying, although some teachers were intimidated into silence. The AEU is backing Morgan’s charges that she experienced discrimination because of her lawful industrial activities.
Eighteen months later, Morgan’s complaint finally reached the conciliation conference stage. NMIT management continued its attempt to defend the indefensible, so no settlement was reached. A defiant Barbara Morgan, determined to prevent other workers from losing their jobs as a result of their union activism, continues to pursue her complaint.
Morgan has now been joined at the Equal Opportunity Commission by Alison Thorne, a former AEU sub-branch president retrenched in April last year. Like Morgan, Thorne is respected both as an exceptional teacher and a bold and principled unionist. A permanent employee, she was declared “in excess” along with two other union members.
Although NMIT management claimed there was no work for these highly skilled communication skills teachers, it employed nine low-paid casual workers to teach their classes. A stopwork meeting to protest the retrenchments characterised them as discriminatory sackings – part of a push to drive down the cost of labour through casualising the teaching workforce.
The AEU took the three retrenchments to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, where the Institute management was forced to admit that, at the time the retrenchments took place, there was communication skills work available. Two of the retrenched teachers won an extra payout from management to settle their complaints. Thorne, who wants reinstatement, is continuing to campaign against the discriminatory treatment she experienced in the midst of a hard-fought campaign of union bans. Her former co-workers, after settling their own complaints, are backing her struggle.
Organise and fight – in the courts and the community. Thorne’s and Morgan’s Equal Opportunity complaints are an important focus for the broader political campaign. The NMIT Unionists Campaign aims to protect worker and student activists by exposing the long history of discriminatory and anti-union practices at Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE. We are also committed to the broader struggle to halt the casualisation of the TAFE workforce.
We understand the limitation of anti-discrimination laws premised on liberal notions of equality of opportunity. NMIT Unionists Campaign activists want affirmative action principles to be embedded into the law to stop discrimination against oppressed and dis-enfranchised groups in society. Tough sanctions are needed to prevent discrimination. Under the current system, discrimination can be difficult to prove. The act is riddled with exemptions. The process is long and slow, and amendments have made the process less accessible.
To make gains in this environment requires a well-organised defence committee committed to taking news of the resistance into workplaces and the community to tap into the huge reservoir of potential support.
Spectacular success. Since it was established, the NMIT Unionists Campaign Committee has reached tens of thousands of people and won important support. AEU News reports regularly on campaign activities. Internet organising has brought support from around the world. More than a dozen progressive, local and community publications have run one or more articles in support of the campaign. Community radio has brought regular updates to thousands more people.
Last July, a protest petition to Institute management was launched at AEU Vic Branch annual conference. The union-endorsed petition is an important organising tool. Campaign activists used the petition to talk to members of the public who attended the Institute Open Day last August. The same day, a representative from the union sub-branch and the student union presented more than 1,000 signatures to Institute management.
NMIT Unionists regularly sets up stalls in shopping centres across the northern suburbs to gather signatures on the petition. Community support is strong. Many shoppers report similar problems in their own workplaces and are keen to support a group of workers campaigning to reverse the trend.
The people of Darebin turned out in force for the community festival in November. While many educational institutions used the festival as a public relations exercise, NMIT Unionists made sure that local people knew about the anti-union practices of their local TAFE College.
The campaign ended the year with a hugely successful solidarity dinner. The function attracted Koori activists, feminists and unionist from more than half a dozen unions.
Mary Bluett, President of the AEU, praised Morgan and Thorne as the sort of grassroots leaders the union movement needs. Carlo Carli, MLA for Coburg, who has raised the anti-union environment at NMIT in Parliament, spoke about his commitment to halt the casualisation of the TAFE workforce. Gundijtjmara fighter, award winning filmmaker and singer song-writer Richard Frankland joined with collaborator Tony Norris to perform songs from his new CD, Down Three Water Holes Road.
Participants contributed over $650 to the campaign. Buoyed by news that the international trade union movement had forced the eviction of a team of industrial mercenaries from Dubai, participants in the solidarity dinner renewed our commitment to resist union-busting in all its guises. We invite you to join us.