Teachers and school support staff in South Australia staged a very successful strike on 29 November, staring down a state government determined to trash their hard-won conditions, security and essential services in schools.
After a rally last month, 77 percent of Australian Education Union members voted in support of the half-day strike. More than 200 public schools and preschools were closed, while others resorted to “alternative programs” on a skeleton staff.
Mass rallies were held in a range of rural centres as well as Adelaide, as education workers showed their power for the first time in more than a decade.
The 3,500-strong Adelaide rally sprawled like a heaving sea of red t-shirts, bandannas and flags in front of the Education Department in central Adelaide. “We teach students to stand up for themselves, now it’s our turn”, read one bright red placard.
Numerous schools brought their own banners and marched in contingents. Many of the teachers took part in the last strike in 2008, but there were also many newer teachers (like myself) on strike for the first time.
The camaraderie and sense of defiance were palpable – the 20 teachers from my school gathered enthusiastically around our banner and, with thousands of others, voted with great gusto for a motion to continue the campaign with further industrial and political action.
Rob Lucas, the state treasurer, who is leading the push against the teachers, made the usual condemnations of the strike. Predictably, every effort was made to brand teachers’ modest 3.5 percent wage claim as selfish, and to bemoan the disruption supposedly caused to parents. But this didn’t deter the workers, nor the many supportive parents who showed their solidarity by keeping their children at home.
Lucas has made it plain that, if he gets his way, salary increases will be sacrificed for new government “initiatives” like an “entrepreneurship program” or literacy programs (read: more work for teachers, with no extra hours or support).
His negotiating team also insists that the agreement must include greater “flexibility”, which means a further increase in insecure contract staffing and the stripping away of crucial entitlements.
Also under threat is the union’s role in school decision making. The government wants to reduce the power of the Personnel Advisory Committees, mandatory bodies in schools that facilitate union input into employment matters.
Finally, the government’s threat to remove “the Commitment” from the agreement – a list of essential services that the government commits to funding like information technology, special education/disability programs, new arrivals intensive language centres and a host of others – has galvanised a wide range of staff into action. It is now as clear that the government wants to open the way for cuts and the undermining of conditions in an already strained system.
Although the wage increases are important – a 3.5 percent increase would mean South Australian teachers still earn only mid-range wages compared to teachers in other states – most educators see the battle as about much more than just pay. For most, it is just as much about the welfare of children and young people.
What is needed now is an urgent commitment from the union to more strikes early in the new year. The strategy of seeking out Christmas and New Year media plugs, put forward at a recent branch council meeting, will not be enough to apply real pressure.
A strike in the first week of term one next year, would help create a political crisis for the government. The evidence is it would be enthusiastically taken up by education workers.
This is the sort of action needed to secure an agreement that does not sell out wages and conditions.
Paul Coats is a teacher and AEU sub-branch secretary at a suburban Adelaide high school