A raw deal for Victorian teachers

After a two-year campaign, the Victorian joint teachers and education support staff EBA has been ratified. The Australian Education Union and the state Liberal government finally reached agreement on 18 April.

At first, media coverage repeated the union officials’ false declaration of a huge win, with pay rises of 16-20 percent. Closer inspection revealed not only that the pay rises are mediocre at best (some AEU members receiving rises that do not even match inflation). Hard-won conditions have also been lost. For example, teachers who had been declared in excess due to declining enrolments used to be prioritsed for new jobs.

In effect, we’re all on contracts now. Experienced teachers in excess will have to compete with graduate teachers for jobs, and principals will no doubt see the advantage in hiring “cheaper” graduates rather than experienced teachers. As a former research officer for the AEU federal office, Peter Job, wrote in The Age, “Permanence is effectively gone, with teachers supposedly in permanent positions no longer entitled to a job elsewhere if they are declared in excess, only the right to be considered for a position”.

The process for the new agreement to be carried through started with a series of ratification meetings held in various locations from 6 to 16 May. The purpose of these meetings was to debate the pros and cons of the agreement and then have delegate representatives from schools vote either yes or no to the in-principle agreement. The meetings didn’t really work like that, though. Delegates were already tied to votes taken at their sub-branch meetings (which occur prior to debate). The union leadership has little interest in a participatory meeting – in the Broadmeadows meeting I went to, the chair encouraged delegates to leave before the proceedings and just to make sure to place their vote in the box on the way out.

A genuinely democratic process would allow members to debate the agreement fully, without any information being given out to the media, and certainly no hefty claims of a “historic win”, until it’s passed by the members. Many members have expressed resentment towards pressure to vote “yes” to an agreement they don’t support.

The Teachers and Education Support Staff Alliance (TESA), a rank and file group, intervened into these meetings to argue that teachers and ES staff should reject the agreement. In the end the agreement went through with 78 percent support, a significantly smaller proportion than last time. It seems that a lot of “yes” votes were due to a combination of the false claim of a “historic win”, campaign fatigue and the union leaders’ groundless assertion that we’d get something worse if we fought on.

The next step was for all Department of Education employees to vote on the agreement as part of the Fair Work ballot. Non-members, who have played no part in the campaign, were given a vote. The results of the ballot were revealed in mid-June: 81 percent in support.

Many teachers and ES staff are rightly disappointed with this agreement and the ratification process. As a result, some have threatened to quit the union, but this would be a mistake. As individuals, we’re powerless; the only gains workers have ever made have been won through collective action. We need to win the argument that we need a fighting union, not to quit – something that can only make us weaker.

TESA is committed to fighting for a union that represents our interests. We have consistently argued that to win real gains, we need sustained industrial action. After such a weak industrial strategy, we shouldn’t be surprised that the new agreement has made no significant improvements and has instead gone backwards. A strike every six months was never going to wrangle any gains out of a Liberal government, even one as weak and indecisive as the one we let off the hook.

TESA’s next project is to work towards a more democratic ratification process for the next agreement, one that involves member participation rather than reliance on an opaque backroom deal by a union leadership that has failed us yet again. If you’re in the AEU, join us!

[To get in touch with TESA, email [email protected].au]