In mid-May, the Australian Education Union (AEU) announced the results of the ratification process in the education pay dispute. This high profile dispute involving teachers, principals and education support staff had been dragging on in Victoria for the last 2 years.
The figures showed that 78% of AEU delegates voted for the deal while 22% voted against. While a clear majority supported the deal most saw it as shoddy and did so reluctantly. The result itself doesn’t reflect the widespread anger and disaffection held by many union members who feel sold out and let down by the union leadership.
The AEU leaders claimed that the agreement reached with the Napthine Liberal Government secured pay increases of between 16% – 20% over 3 years. However, once the figures were scrutinised more closely it was clear that the numbers didn’t add up and that the AEU had included automatic incremental increases in their highly touted figures. The real increase only amounted to about 2.5% per year which doesn’t even cover cost of living increases.
There is also anger that the union leaders caved in on conditions that were part of the log of claims such as a 50% reduction in temporary contracts and maximum class sizes of 20. The percentage of teachers employed under contracts – which effectively force them to reapply for their own jobs year after year – is still as high as it was 20 years ago under the Kennett regime.
Under the new agreement job security for teachers will be even further eroded. Those teachers declared “in excess” (if a school has declining enrolments for example, or a subject is no longer offered) will no longer be given the same priority when applying for jobs at other schools.
In addition to this, the agreement cemented provisions for the government to change the performance review regime, by simply ‘consulting’ the union. Whilst teachers were told that performance pay had been taken off the negotiating table, the proposed agreement will make way for a more onerous performance review regime to be introduced.
It is no secret that both the Liberal and Labor parties want to give principals more power to hire and fire without going through the merit and equity checks they are currently obligated to meet. Disappointingly this agreement helps facilitate that.
In recent weeks principals have been advised by the Department of Education that the performance review regime will change with the implementation of this agreement. Initial indications are that the top 70-80% of staff will increment to the next level and the bottom 20-30% will not. Principals have been told that they will be able to dismiss underperforming teachers within 13 weeks.
By allowing the performance review regime to be easily modified, the AEU have allowed any future governments to introduce performance pay more easily. Many members know that this is merely the thin end of the wedge and that more attacks on the teaching profession and public education are to come.
The mood among teachers is one of both anger and frustration. It was reported that in many of the ratification meetings, the AEU leaders told the delegates that there was no choice. If they didn’t vote for this agreement they would get nothing else. In the absence of a clear way forward most people voted grudgingly in favour.
Many members understandably feel betrayed by the AEU leaders and are ready to resign from the union. This however is not the way forward. If we are really going to defend and extend pay and conditions, and public education itself, we need to build a strong, fighting union.
We should take inspiration from the solid support that the ‘no’ campaign received. The 22% figure was higher than last time in 2008. This opposition needs to be built upon with the goal of replacing the current conservative leaders with people who are prepared to take on whoever is in government and ensure public education is expanded rather than eroded.
By Simone Howard