The Victorian teachers’ industrial dispute is continuing into 2013. It has been nearly two years since the Australian Education Union (AEU) first lodged its log of claims. This is first and foremost an indictment on the right-wing Baillieu State Government. However, some accountability also needs to be placed on the union’s leadership due to their lack of strategy.
The Baillieu Government has not moved from its offer of a 2.5% per year pay rise and proposed performance pay scheme – an effective pay cut for 70% of Victorian teachers. Despite this, the AEU leadership reduced its demands from a 30% pay rise over three years to just 12% over the same period.
Newly elected AEU President Meredith Peace conceded that “the ball is very much in the state government’s court. We’ve moved considerably from our 30% pay claim and they haven’t even bothered to respond.” Many AEU members are rightly questioning the wisdom of such a retreat from the leadership.
It is clear for all to see that nothing of substance will be won by teachers unless the dispute is escalated. Overtime bans will begin in term one, with teachers working only a 38-hour week. This is welcome but long overdue. There will also be another mass stop work action in February. However, it is very unlikely that these actions alone will be enough to make the government budge.
The government will continue to try and drive a wedge between teachers and parents. Already unexplained and ineffective bans on teachers writing report card comments have annoyed parents. Instead the AEU should work to broaden out the dispute by embracing parents and community groups and other areas of public education that are also under attack.
However, with the government now threatening legal action against the union for announcing modest industrial action, the need to take action outside the framework of the anti-union Fair Work laws is becoming increasingly pressing for AEU members.
One recent idea from rank and file teachers included helping parents coordinate a mass withdrawal of students from the standardised NAPLAN test. This act of solidarity would spare teachers the threat of prosecution for illegal industrial action but much more importantly, it would also put pressure on the federal government and question the neoliberal funding model that is common to ALP and Coalition governments alike.
It is clear from this faltering dispute that the struggles of all workers in the public sector must also be linked if they are to be successful. The lack of coordination between the unions representing teachers, nurses, paramedics, fire fighters and other public sector workers struggling against cuts has been a key factor in both the underwhelming resolutions to previous disputes and the meandering teachers struggle.
While the AEU leaders may have their eye on the next state election, it is clear that the ALP opposition has nothing to offer teachers, parents or students. The federal Labor government masterminded the NAPLAN testing regime, which pits public schools against each other rather than providing funding where needed. It also backs the Gonski report, which advocates the setting in stone of public funding for private schools, rather than focusing on building a world-class public school system.
On a state level, the Victorian ALP has admitted that it agrees with almost half of Baillieu’s $300 million of TAFE cuts! Public sector unions including the AEU must stop pretending that the ALP offers any sort of solution.
At the next mass stop work action an urgent discussion needs to take place with the aim of implementing an effective industrial and political strategy. Part of this strategy needs to include organising industrial action that can put the government under pressure while simultaneously winning the support of parents and the wider community.
Further to this, the union needs to break with the dead end politics of the ALP who are just as responsible as the Liberals for the decimation of public education. Teachers, parents and students take the ‘public education for our future’ slogan seriously – it’s time the AEU leadership did too.
By Chris Dite