Essential workers can win better wages AND conditions, write Solidarity members of the AEU
After two years of the remote learning rollercoaster, public school teachers and education support staff in Victoria rightly expect big things from a new enterprise bargaining agreement, but the proposed agreement doesn’t come close to what we need—and what we have the power to win now.
At the start of Term 1, the Australian Education Union (AEU) leadership lifted industrial bans and are now recommending an “in principle agreement” to the members. It contains modest, and in some cases temporary, improvements in conditions, but it includes an insulting pay cut for teachers in real terms.
In other words, the small workload reduction is being paid for by teachers with a real cut to pay. But teachers are in a strong position to win a workload reduction without trade-offs.
The offer should be voted down. AEU members have been prepared to fight. We were gearing up for a stop work action in Term 1, following meeting bans and the impressive NSW Teachers Federation stop work in Term 4 last year. The meeting bans were popular and there was enthusiasm for stepping up to strike action.
That the Andrews government agreed to a workload reduction, just on the threat of industrial action, shows the strong bargaining position we are in. The state government has gambled on the minimum crumbs it can throw to get an agreement over the line.
We can campaign for, and win, a No vote to send a strong message to the Andrews government and the AEU leadership that we won’t accept crumbs: we are willing to fight to win respect.
Rank-and-file unionists have agitated for a decrease in face-to-face teaching loads. It is a genuine gain to be getting a decrease in face-to-face teaching time of 1.5 hours.
One group, Teachers Voice, has especially focused on arguing the case for reducing face-to-face teaching to 18 hours a week for all teachers, from the current 20 hours for secondary and 22.5 for primary teachers.
The demand is hugely popular, with many motions from sub branches and regions calling for the negotiators not to back down on this condition. Our face-to-face teaching time is high compared to in other Australian states and that of teachers in most other OECD countries. Our preparation time has been eroded over many years with demoralising “administrivia” and accountability tasks.
But under the proposed agreement, the decrease starts only in 2023, with a one-hour reduction and then another half-hour reduction in 2024. The cost to the department is relatively minor, as this face-to-face time reduction is meant to phase in as our “professional practice days” (one day a term we are rostered off class) phase out. And this reduction is in a “deed of agreement”, not in the actual EBA. And it runs out in 2026!
So it will have to be fought for again and the threat of its cancellation can be used against us as a bargaining chip in the next round of negotiations, just as the cancellation of professional practice days (which also had a sunset clause) were used against us last year.
It’s simply insulting to have such a sensible condition that will improve the quality of education for all students held over us as a treat we’ll have to beg for again.
No to pay cuts
But the biggest slap in the face is the pay cut. The Victorian Government public sector pay policy is to cap pay rises at 2 per cent. That’s their pathetic excuse for offering teachers a 1 per cent pay increase every six months. The offer is not the same as 2 per cent per year as staff get 1 per cent for only half the year, so it actually is just 1.5 per cent per year.
With inflation at 3.5 per cent, even the sweetener allowance (which is not built into permanent pay) of an extra 1 per cent in December means we are not keeping up with CPI inflation, which the Reserve Bank expects to be 3.75 per cent by the end of 2022.
The 2 per cent pay cap policy could have been ripped up years ago—it is hard to think of a group of people who could more easily win the public case for pay rises than nurses, teachers, ambulance drivers and fire-fighters.
Some of the very lowest paid education support (ES) staff will benefit substantially through a classification restructure. According to the AEU, up to 70 per cent of ES members will gain a significant pay rise.
But the reclassification process will be messy. Some ES members are concerned that they will be bumped down pay steps because of the redefined roles at each step and others will be asked to take on more duties.
ES pay has been obscenely low for too long and this correction is the very least that we should have expected—while there is also finally a commitment to provide laptops to ES staff, they still don’t have a paid lunch break!
Teacher members have expressed resolute solidarity with ES staff for pay rises and greater respect for their work, with many teachers arguing that ES should be the first to get the pay rises. But there is no reason that ES staff and teachers can’t both win pay rises and improved conditions.
Victorian government money has been thrown hand over fist elsewhere; an appalling $4.8 billion policing splurge last year, plus $1.8 billion on new and expanded prisons, and billion-dollar blow-outs in the “big builds”. Victoria spends less on public education than any other state in Australia.
Education Minister James Merlino, who signed off on the deal, had his own 11.8 per cent pay increase, of $39,601, to $375,771 in June 2021.
The proposed agreement brings some family leave entitlements in line with other public sector entitlements (expanding partner leave from one week to four weeks, and primary carer leave from 12 to 14 weeks).
There is some long-overdue recognition that our work while on school camps, information nights and so on, should be compensated with time in lieu. But these concessions should be taken for what they are—signals that the Andrews government is looking to appease teachers. With an assertive industrial campaign we could extract far greater gains.
The pandemic has changed the political equation for essential workers like teachers and ES; our labour has never been so publicly lauded. And after the exposure of sexism in 2021, from parliament to school classrooms, the importance of recognising and respecting a workforce dominated by women should be brought home to the Andrews government.
Teachers are well aware of what we are owed. On online Victorian teacher forums, and even on the AEU Facebook page itself, the proposed agreement has been roundly rubbished as disrespectful and pathetic.
Rank-and-file activists can organise to turn this sentiment into an active struggle for a better deal; we can organise meetings, resolutions, sign-on statements and a rally for a better agreement.
A reduction in class sizes with an enforceable cap; reduce face-to-face hours to a maximum of 18 hours a week without a sunset clause; no more performance and development processes; and an above-inflation pay rise are all achievable demands. A campaign to get out the No vote is the first step to restart the fight for real respect.