South Australian teachers and school support officers have entered a new phase of combat against the Liberal state government in response to the government’s refusal to continue negotiations for a new enterprise agreement.
A rally of more than 500 teachers and support staff outside the Department of Education on 26 October marked a modest but important escalation in the campaign. The state branch of the Australian Education Union is now hoping to ballot members for a half-day strike on Wednesday, 26 November, in an effort to intensify the pressure.
The state treasurer, Rob Lucas, is demanding “efficiencies” (a reduction in conditions such as workload protections and placement rights) in exchange for what are misleadingly called wage “increases”. In fact, the increases on offer are less than inflation, and therefore amount to a real wage cut.
Paltry wage increases are in part a legacy of 16 years of Labor government in South Australia. The Weatherill Labor government, in power from 2011 to 2018, stared down unions and pledged to cap public sector wage rises at 1.5 percent per year (read wage cuts), a move Business SA applauded as a “champagne moment”. It’s no wonder then that the new Liberal education minister, John Gardener, feels confident to do the same.
There are more than 27,000 teachers, school and preschool staff in South Australia. South Australian teachers are the second lowest paid in the country, only Tasmanian teachers earning less. Meanwhile the cost of living continues to skyrocket. Electricity prices have increased by almost 20 percent over the last year, transport by 6 percent and housing by 5 percent according to the South Australian Council of Social Services.
Wage increases of at least 6 percent per annum are needed to improve the situation for education staff, coupled with a real commitment to addressing the pressures teachers face at work, including high workload, lack of support for the increased numbers of students with special needs and the blowout in short-term, insecure contracts.
The last major confrontation between South Australian educators and the government was in 2008, when teachers and support staff struck multiple times for a 21 percent increase over three years. Thousands participated, and the strikes and mass rallies generated a climate of solidarity and confidence on the part of school staff that was felt for years afterwards.
Over the last 10 years, however, the union has become complacent and pliant to Labor in office, refusing to confront the government seriously despite steadily declining wage increases in successive agreements and massive growth of tenuous short-term teaching contracts.
Permanency rates have dropped rapidly, from 87 percent in 2011 to 75 percent in 2016. Meanwhile the TAFE sector, represented by the same union, has been gutted under Labor. This has paved the way for the recent budget announcement of the closure of a further seven campuses by the Liberal government.
The lack of industrial action for more than 10 years means that many teachers are demoralised, union membership has declined, and younger teachers have been denied any experience of serious rank-and-file union militancy.
The recent effort to organise protest action as part of agreement negotiations is long overdue, and the call for strike action welcome. However, it is lamentable that even when it was clear that government negotiators were stalling, branch officials delayed protest plans until late October.
It’s now crucial that union members support the call for a half-day strike, even though this strike is likely to be held just two weeks before the end of the school year, without time for serious follow-through. In 2008 it took rolling strike action over many months to seriously pressure the government.
What is needed is a commitment to urgent and determined action that can galvanise members and build solidarity for the potentially bitter fight ahead. Without this we face the real threat that, in desperation, an agreement that makes no improvement to conditions, and that accepts real wage reductions, will be foisted upon a demoralised membership.
If the strike on 26 November is a moderate success, it can lay the basis for more united industrial action and the kind of solidarity in action that we need to prove that South Australian educators can win the respect we deserve.
Paul Coats is AEU secretary at a suburban high school in Adelaide.