Thousands vote for a union fightback

The Queensland Teachers’ Union leadership has been dealt a major blow by a rank-and-file ticket in the union’s elections, held over October and November. Although the incumbents managed to scrape back in, the success of the opposition QTU Fightback ticket—comprised of rank-and-file union members who have been pushing for improvements in wages and conditions for more than four years—reveals the scale of members’ discontent.

After preference distributions, QTU Fightback secured 44.4 percent of the 6700 votes cast for Honorary Vice-President candidate Rebecca Barrigos, 38.7 percent for Presidential candidate Ollie Amerena and 38.3 percent for Vice-President candidate Tim Arnot.

QTU Fightback ran on a platform of above-inflation pay rises and real workload reduction, union leaders being paid only a workers’ wage, improved democracy within the union and an industrial strategy that draws on the power teachers have as workers to shut down schools to secure better pay and conditions.

Fightback ran a grassroots campaign centred on meeting and speaking with members. Activist volunteers distributed more than 15,000 leaflets to at least 200 schools and, in a novel approach to union elections, doorknocked more than 900 teachers in Brisbane. Through this, Fightback activists were able to speak to hundreds of members about their grievances, and to share with them our vision of a fighting union. While the conversations were varied, the common theme among them was that members were being crushed by high workloads and increasingly struggling with the cost-of-living crisis. There was widespread support for the idea that the union should be doing more to fight back.

The most recent agreement negotiated by the union locked in wage increases below inflation and delivered nothing on workload relief, despite a state-wide teacher shortage and high workloads driving teachers out of the profession. The last state-wide strike happened in 2009, and since then our conditions have worsened. Teachers have voted for industrial action on three separate occasions over the last seven years, but the union leaders have refused to call teachers out for fear of embarrassing their friends in the State Labor Government. This has only allowed the government to further erode our conditions.

Fightback was up against an entrenched leadership that hasn’t faced a contested presidential election for more than 15 years. Throughout the campaign, there were attempts from leading union figures to stifle debate and restrict campaigning. There were reports of Fightback material being torn down by union representatives and organisers, and candidates were slandered on social media, in election material and in union forums. The union leaders’ tagline was “No fake promises”, a cynical way to distract from the fact that they made no promises at all, choosing instead to run a smear campaign against Fightback, deriding it as “silly”, “dangerous” and having “extreme positions”.

Schools were saturated with material from the incumbents. At official union training days, conferences and council meetings, delegates were “gifted” fridge magnets, stubby holders and stickers from the incumbents, which would have cost tens of thousands of dollars.

But what Fightback lacked in expensive, flashy merch, was made up for in the commitment and determination of supporters who campaigned in their schools, helped distribute material, talked with workmates, generously donated, and doorknocked. This makes the strong result for Fightback both a triumph of grassroots organising and a clear vote of no confidence in the current leadership. It demonstrates that there is appetite for militancy to win better wages and conditions, and that members are furious at our current union leadership’s weak strategy of lobbying and sucking up to the Department and government, making them accomplices in the ongoing degradation of teachers’ conditions.

Fightback’s result builds on the significant votes against offers from the government, strongly endorsed by the union, in the two previous rounds of enterprise bargaining. In 2019, more than 6000 teachers, or nearly 20 percent of those who voted, voted against the government offer, and in 2022, a similar proportion did the same. In both instances, the offers failed to address workload and wage issues and yet were enthusiastically supported and commended to members by the union leadership.

With a cost-of-living crisis savaging workers’ wages while strike days remain at historically low levels, this result is confirmation that significant numbers of rank-and-file members want to see their unions take a stand. Of course, the problems facing workers won’t be magically solved simply by replacing the union bureaucracy. What’s needed is the rebuilding of a rank-and-file movement and a revival of the traditions of union militancy. But the existing union leadership is one of the many barriers to that, and the Fightback challenge is a positive step towards overcoming it. It has also gone some way to contributing to the rebuilding of a militant rank-and-file network in the QTU, which will be needed if an industrial strategy is to eventually be implemented.

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