Victorian school staff can still vote down below-inflation pay deal

The Australian Education Union (AEU) has completed ratification meetings to make a recommendation about the draft 2022 Victorian Government Schools Agreement (VGSA), which will determine pay and conditions for school staff for the next four years. School sub-branches voted on the proposed deal and then elected delegates (one for every 20 members) to 29 ratification meetings across the state.

The deal just got across the line, with 61 per cent (1272) voting Yes and 39 per cent (823) voting No, out of a total of 2095 votes. This is an unprecedented level of dissatisfaction with a proposed union agreement in recent memory. The ratification No vote in 2017 was just 18 per cent.

The No vote represents over 20,000 union members who wanted to hold out for more. Members had voted to endorse strike action but this was never taken—instead an inadequate deal was rushed through. As one member argued at the ratification meeting in Glen Waverley, we had hardly begun our campaign—a few meeting bans were imposed but there had been no discussion with members about striking, which she was more than ready for.

The deal will now be put to a ballot of all staff.

Pay caps can be broken

The biggest issue with the draft agreement is pay. The deal amounts to 1.7 per cent a year, plus a 1 per cent bonus not built into permanent pay. With inflation now at 3.5 per cent and rising sharply, that’s a real pay cut—an insult to teachers and education support staff who were hailed as frontline heroes during the pandemic.

The deal was subject to the Andrews government’s draconian 2 per cent pay cap policy. But it’s notable that there is no pay cap for Education Minister James Merlino, whose pay rose 11.8 per cent last year, taking his salary to almost $400,000. Nor it seems is there a pay cap for school principals, who will get a 7.55 per cent immediate sign on bonus. AEU officials had the nerve to call the opening up of large pay differentials at the top a “win” for career progression.

It didn’t have to be this way. Around 30 enterprise agreements approved in mostly blue-collar workplaces in the past six months have won pay deals pegged to inflation. These include companies such as Australia Post’s StarTrack. AEU officials’ refusal to challenge the 2 per cent pay cap policy leaves school staff at the mercy of inflation for the next four years.

Officials even argued that we would be subject to a new Andrews government 1.5 per cent pay cap if we voted “No”. But pay caps can be broken. Victorian nurses won 3 per cent last year.

Workload, ES and in lieu

The officials argued that the deal delivers a reduction in face to face hours for teachers, in lieu arrangements for school camps, and a larger pay rise for Education Support (ES) staff, so that teachers who voted No would be “selling them out”.

The 1.5 hour reduction in face-to-face teaching is a small win. But it didn’t need to be traded off for pay. The win is a tribute to the actions of members, and many years of argument by teacher activists. However, it is included in a deed separate to the agreement. That makes it harder to enforce. It would have to be taken to a court separate to Fair Work, and its breach has no clear remedy. And the full reduction does not begin until 2024.

In lieu arrangements for school camps and other activities were hailed by the union as historic in dealing with unpaid labor. Theoretically staff would now need be given time off for any after school activities like school camps. Exactly how this will work is unclear. But the biggest problem is that it isn’t funded, and will likely lead to some school activities being cut, pitting students against staff.

Some ES staff will gain a decent pay rise, but this has been oversold, as some of it relies on ES staff requesting range reviews. ES staff still don’t get a paid lunch break.

The argument that teachers who voted No would be selling out ES staff is divisive and offensive. Teachers have been vocal in calling for greater pay for ES, and voting No didn’t put ES pay rises at risk. It would open up the prospect of fighting for a better deal for all.

School staff can still vote down deal

AEU officials have argued that even members who voted No should now vote Yes in the all staff ballot, because of the internal ratification process. But this is not how democracy works. The ratification process is effectively a recommendation to members, and those in the very large minority are not required to change their minds.

The internal ratification process also had democratic flaws. The officials sent a special mailed “Vote Yes” newsletter to all members at great expense, many emails outlining the Yes case, and had organisers visit schools to promote a Yes vote. No resources were given to the No case. The Yes case was presented at all ratification meetings from the front. The No arguments had to be made from the floor. Members at schools with inactive sub-branches had no way to participate.

The majority of staff in Victorian schools are union members. While non-union members also get to vote on the proposed deal, a No vote in the all staff ballot would not be the result of conservatism, but a vote to begin a fight for more.

Where to from here

Resistance to the deal was widespread. But there were only small groups of unionists actively organising to oppose it. With a wider reach into more schools, the ratification result could have been different. One important network was MESEJ (Melbourne Educators for Social and Environmental Justice). Much of its organising took place online and the MESEJ Facebook group has grown substantially as a result. The challenge now is to organise the resistance in schools, to increase the number of activists and link up more union activists across schools.

A No vote would give us the opportunity to restart the campaign. The initiative would then be with the rank and file who want much more than the officials have negotiated. We would have to push hard for meetings, strikes, stoppages and bans so that our demands for a real pay rise and a serious transformation of teaching conditions in public schools are taken seriously.

Even if the deal gets through the final hurdle, none of the disgruntlement will go away, and cost of living will come back to bite. The scale of the No vote shows that there are a growing number of us who want a much better deal for teachers, school staff and students. We need to begin the fight to much more fundamentally transform our schools, and to transform our union into one that is willing to fight for this.

By Solidarity members of the AEU

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