Australian teachers show how to fight

By GRANT BROOKES, in Melbourne

20,000 striking teachers marched to the Victorian state parliament in Melbourne on September 5. Outside the capital, 20,000 more stopped work in regional centres. It was the biggest teachers strike in Victoria’s history.

They were protesting over very similar issues facing teachers and support staff in Aotearoa, including a below-inflation pay offer and “performance pay”, based on scores from “national standards” testing. Their action shows how to respond.

For the first time, teachers from Victoria’s independent and private schools took action alongside their public sector colleagues. This was in defiance of a ruling which said the strike by the Independent Education Union members might be illegal.

Another first was united action by all of the public school staff in the Australian Education Union (AEU) – teachers, principals and education support staff, together.

Previously, the support staff had been disadvantaged (as they are in New Zealand) under an employment agreement that’s separate from the agreement for the stronger teacher group. But the AEU is now bargaining for a single agreement to cover everyone employed in public schools.

The rally at parliament was also supported by nurses, public servants and striking workers from the Grocon construction site, who had been attacked by mounted police and pepper sprayed the week before.

State premier Ted Baillieu had promised during his 2010 election campaign that Victorian teachers would go from being the lowest paid in Australia to “the highest paid in the nation” under his Liberal-National coalition government.

But his real agenda was spelled out in a “vision paper”, provocatively released in June, in the middle of bargaining. The vision paper called for performance pay, cutting teacher numbers by 5 percent, forcing them to work during school holidays, differential pay based on subjects taught, and recruiting managers from outside the teaching profession to be school principals.

His government has also offered teachers a measly 2.5 percent pay increase, while teachers on the top pay step in West Australia and New South Wales are 8.9 percent ahead.

At the same time, Baillieu is making unprecedented $300 million cuts to TAFE (polytech) funding. 80 percent of courses will be affected, and 2,000 staff (who are also covered by the AEU) will lose their jobs.

Labour saviours?
School teachers are also under attack in other Australian states where recent elections have brought Liberal-National coalition governments to power. This had made it easier for Labor-aligned leaders of the AEU to claim that the Labor Party is on the teachers’ side.

Two days before the strike, Labor prime minister Julia Gillard had announced the federal government’s response to a report on the future of education from business leader David Gonski.

Amongst other things, the Gonski Report had recommended an extra $5 billion in annual education funding. Gillard backed this call, but added that it wouldn’t be implemented until 2020 – a time-frame which casts doubt on whether it will actually be carried out.

Despite this, AEU federal president Angelo Gavrielatos heaped praise on Gillard at a mass meeting before the march, held in the huge Rod Laver Arena (home of the Australian Tennis Open). He led chants of “I give a Gonski!”

What wasn’t mentioned by AEU leaders is that Gillard’s announcement also gave much stronger assurances that private schools would receive additional public funding from Labor, entrenching the inequality in the education system.

The system of national testing in literacy and maths, which is used to rank schools and teacher performance, was also introduced by the federal Labor government. And as Will Marshall, a teacher from Footscray City College, pointed out at the meeting: “The Gillard government also puts forward performance pay”.

A member of the Teachers and ES Alliance, a grouping of socialists and leftists within the union, was cheered when she said, “This is our opportunity to say to Baillieu – and also to Gillard, who said that the Gonski Review funding is dependent on us agreeing to data collection and league tables – we need to say, no, enough.”

The Teachers and ES Alliance also put up two resolutions at the meeting. One called for the AEU to bargain for all of the claims which members had voted for at the outset, and not trade off valuable conditions and educational goals like smaller class sizes in exchange for a pay rise. The other called for another one-day strike this year, to strengthen the campaign.

These were attacked by AEU leaders as “grandstanding”, “feel good” motions which were “unrealistic”. When the vote came, both resolutions were lost.

The AEU leaders also ignored calls to unite the campaign for teachers and support staff with the campaign against the TAFE cuts, despite strong sympathy at the meeting for their higher education colleagues. A rally to save TAFEs was held the very next day, but it was much smaller and less powerful without the involvement of the school teachers.

However the mass meeting on September 5 did vote for a resolution, moved by the leadership, on escalating action. This includes rolling regional stoppages with rallies outside Coalition politicians’ offices in term 4, bans on reporting student achievement data to the education department and bans on replying to emails from the department.

If the dispute is not resolved by the start of the 2013 school year, teachers also voted to work no more than 38 hours a week and take another one-day strike on 14 February.

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