“We want more than thanks!” was the rallying cry of thousands of striking teachers who formed a sea of red outside the New South Wales parliament on 7 December. Hailing from across the state, their message to the premier and the education minister was that they had had enough. 

The government is offering a 2.5 percent pay increase, which barely keeps up with inflation. The union is demanding up to 7.5 percent to reflect the decline in teachers’ salaries relative to other skilled professions. 

Speakers at the rally talked about the endless paperwork, the weekends and evenings spent catching up on administration, and time taken out of teaching time to meet bureaucratic requirements. Teachers are demanding more planning time so they can deliver the quality education they believe students deserve.

Workloads are intensified by the serious teacher shortage in New South Wales. According to the education department’s own figures, there are 3,000 unfilled full-time positions in the state’s schools. Teachers are having to pick up the slack to keep the schools running. As a result of unmanageable workloads, the union says two-thirds of teachers are considering leaving the profession. Added to that is the toll that two years of online learning and supporting students through the pandemic has taken on educators.

While chatting with two teachers on the bus heading to the strike rally, I mentioned that I was studying to become a teacher. “Don’t do it!” was their emphatic response. “I’ve been teaching for 20 years”, one said, “and the workloads have never been this bad”. 

Their union t-shirts were emblazoned with the slogan “more than thanks” on the front. “Even a little thanks would be nice!” the younger teacher remarked. Instead, Education Minister Sarah Mitchell slammed the striking teachers, accusing the union of being a “protectionist racket” and “hellbent on hanging students out to dry for political purposes”.

Despite Mitchell’s claim that the strike was “pitting teachers, families and students against each other”, there is broad support for the teachers’ demands. A poll by the Sydney Morning Herald showed 83 percent of respondents supported the demand for a pay rise, reflecting the general sense in the community that teachers are not recognised for the crucial and difficult work they do.

The government’s 2.5 percent cap on public sector wage rises has come under fire from other unions this year with the Rail, Tram and Bus union taking industrial action over pay as well. Combined with the teachers’ strike, these high-profile sectors have the potential to defeat the policy, paving the way for real wage rises in the public sector. But this cannot be left to union officials, even those with the best negotiating strategies. Many teachers recognise that what is needed to win is concerted and ongoing strike action by public servants to put real pressure on the government.

“Teachers got a glimpse of the kind of pressure they could bring to bear last week when 400 schools across the state were shut down for the day”, a delegate from a school in Sydney’s west told Red Flag. “For many teachers, this was their first strike and it really gave them a sense of the kind of power we have when we take action collectively.”

The union has not ruled out more industrial action. “If we want to win our demands”, the western Sydney teacher said, “we’ll need to continue to go on strike to show the government we are serious and if they want a functioning education system, where students receive quality education and teachers don’t leave the sector in droves, they are going to have to give us what we are asking for”.

This sentiment echoes that of the older teacher from the bus. “Everything we have today is because the unions fought for it”, she said. “We used to have rolling strikes where we’d shut down the schools for days. We’ll need more of those if we are going to get what we want this time.”