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Teacher activists demand ongoing employment

Grassroots education activists are campaigning to demand that their elected union officials make the fight to secure ongoing employment a union priority. Red Bingham, a veteran educator and Australian Education Union (AEU) member, takes a look at the history.

It’s summer. In my industry, education, a huge number of teachers are covered by short-term contracts. They receive unemployment as their Christmas present. But it wasn’t always this way.

Teacher unions opposed fixed-term contract teaching positions in schools in the ’70s and ’80s. In Victoria, teachers took industrial action against “limited tenure.” They were militant and prepared to lose pay. In secondary schools, teachers signed a pledge. If one member was asked to take an extra lesson or have a student in excess of the agreed maximum, then not only would that teacher stop work, but all the signatories would. These wildcat walkouts panicked the Liberal government, and it dropped the highly unpopular limited tenure mode of employment. Militant unionism triumphed!

From the mid-80s, Victoria had a Labor government. The worry for ongoing teachers was to be declared “in excess.” If a school had falling numbers, the principal could nominate a teacher “in excess,” and they would be transferred to a school in the same region and retain their conditions and holiday pay.

In 1992, Jeff Kennett was elected and applied Thatcherite slash-and-burn policies. Thousands of public servants lost their jobs, scores of schools closed and the land was sold to property developers. “Schools of the Future” was introduced, which made each school responsible for its own recruitment. With this, the security of ongoing employment was gone. Teachers could be hired on short-term contracts.

Seven years later, Kennett was thrown out of office. The Labor government of Steve Bracks promised a better deal for unions and more industrial democracy for workers. But these promises were hollow.

Superficially, things improved with the AEU and the government talking. However, “Schools of the Future” is still there.

With teachers’ wages coming from the school budget, many decision makers casualised their schools. They could get five teachers on 12-month contracts for the cost of four ongoing ones. In 1999, contract teachers were 18.4% of the teaching service, but seven years later this had fallen only fractionally to 17% (source: AEU News, November 2006.)

And what has the AEU leadership done about this? Not much. They extracted recognition from Bracks that ongoing would be the “preferred mode of employment.” But the officials, reluctant to damage the cosy relationship they had developed with their Labor mates, lacked the resolve to campaign effectively for the abolition of the contract system.

This is where union activists come in. Many recognise that contracts are used to divide workers. The task is to get things changed politically at the statewide level. Both the union leaders and the state government must be held to account.

Union sub-branches are encouraged to pass this motion and send it to the AEU: “This sub-branch of the AEU notes with concern the AEU’s failure to make significant inroads in its opposition to the casualisation of Victorian teachers. To this end, we demand that the AEU executive outlines a campaign that will completely eliminate the contract teaching system from Victorian schools.”

Putting pressure on the government is essential. Picketing the Education Minister’s office would go down well. Getting letters to the editor published is another good strategy.

Teacher activists need to keep in touch, think creatively and organise. It’s time for Bracks to end the hated contract system and to guarantee ongoing employment for all teachers who want it.

Contact Red Bingham at redbingham@hotmail.com.au

Cleaners demand justice, respect and a damn pay rise!

Auckland: On Friday, November 3, cleaners and their supporters rallied outside the posh Hyatt Hotel. Inside, cleaning industry bosses were holding their annual Golden Service Awards to recognise excellence.

Disgruntled and low-paid cleaners, active with the Clean Start campaign of the Service and Food Workers Union Nga Ringa Tota (SFWU), made their grievances loud and clear. Cleaners, who are predominantly Maori and Pacific Island women, are paid a miserable $10.95 per hour and do not get any shift penalties. One cleaner told the protest, “They won’t invite us to their lunch or their awards, but they can’t stop us from telling the world about how we are treated.”

The employers’ awards recognising “excellence in the cleaning industry,” were judged according to criteria that included occupational health and safety, innovation and contract staff’s appearance, attitude and enthusiasm. Those attending the rally distributed a leaflet addressing each criterion from the workers’ perspective. Clean Start activists say, “Low-paid cleaners working in appalling conditions, provided with the most basic uniforms, are expected to be the smiling face of the contractor they work for. Well, excuse us for not being enthusiastic!”

While the bosses of cleaning firms patted each other on the back and dined on chardonnay and chicken fettuccine, workers held their own awards on the footpath outside the hotel. They presented the Golden Toilet Duck Award to the worst employer in the cleaning industry. The winner was Spotless Services. Spotless is the largest cleaning firm in New Zealand. Those who mop, vacuum, empty bins and clean toilets to generate profits for Spotless say they do not have enough time to do their jobs properly. They complain of poor equipment and unsafe working conditions and lousy pay. Spotless was nominated as the cleaning firm which has the least respect for cleaners.

Sue Lafaele, a SFWU delegate and cleaner with Spotless, was scathing about the conditions she faces at work. Sue described how Spotless victimises union activists. “You know why I am on night shift? The supervisor put me there when I started becoming union active. He hoped to stop me talking to other workers about our rights — but it didn’t work! I’m the union delegate and I’ve been working hard as a cleaner for years. I now work from 11 pm at night until 7 am in the morning, and then I come home and get my son ready for school and look after the rest of my family. What we would really like is to have a house for our family, but how can we afford it on these wages? No bank will ever give me a loan when I earn $10.95, and how can I save money on my wages?”

Reverend Mue Strickson Pua of the Newtown Pacific Islanders’ Presbyterian Church demanded that Spotless increase pay and improve conditions. He also performed a moving poem that paid tribute to the work of cleaners.

International greetings were also presented to the protest. Peter Murray brought a message of solidarity on behalf of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union. He spoke about the shocking record of Spotless in Australia that tried to force young food vendors at the MCG into individual contractor arrangements. Alison Thorne spoke on behalf of Radical Women. She argued that one of the reasons the pay is so low is because cleaning is seen as women’s work.

The Clean Start campaign was launched in April 2006 when 1,600 cleaners and their supporters mobilised across ten cities in Australia and New Zealand. Since the campaign was launched, cleaners have been holding regular rallies and pickets outside buildings owned by the big corporations. Cleaners say they won’t be ignored any longer, and they are naming and shaming contractors who expect workers to survive on poverty wages.

To get involved in the ongoing campaign, contact the Liquor Miscellaneous and Hospitality Workers Union in Australia (03 9235 777) and the Service and Food Workers Union in New Zealand (09 375 2755).

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