Yes to the agreement, but teachers are divided

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Results of the Australian Education Union, Victorian branch, industrial campaign

Peter Curtis

Mary Bluett the president of the Australian Education Union, Victoria, defended a deeply divisive pay deal with gains won for those at the top and bottom of the scale by saying “you are a long time at the top”. It is not unreasonable to suggest that some of the leadership have been too long at the top. Some time at the bottom of the class may bring them back to earth.

While the majority voted at the ratification meetings to accept the deal, it belies the deep divisions and discontent with the AEU’s Victorian leadership and with Labor Party governments, both state and federal. The question we ask is, who is representing “working families”?

The AEU leadership may like to maintain the pretence of political independence from their ALP masters, but sealing the deal with a kiss reveals that our leadership’s special relationship with the ALP is much too intimate. This same state government chooses to denigrate the collective actions of concerned and responsible citizens through the corporate mass media, bankrupting them in the courts, and generally avoiding any serious public discussion and dialogue about any of our concerns. Both the union leadership and the ALP have displayed contempt for any claim that they genuinely represent “working families”.

It is clear that the conditions of daily life are getting worse rather than better. Rest assured it will be global and national economic and political events that will eventually burst the bubble our current leadership lives in. From truck drivers in Spain to teachers in Pakistan and taxi drivers in Melbourne, to fishermen in Lakes Entrance, workers are being forced to protest against the impact of rising global oil prices on our lives.

Those who suggested that arguing for the continuation of the campaign was just being “radical” betray their naiveté. We all have car tanks to fill, mortgages and rent to pay, food to be put on the table and children to clothe.

Attracted by the enthusiasm and heightened expectations of their fellow teachers, unprecedented numbers joined the union in a short time —­ 5000-plus over a period of five months —­ while some principals actively encouraged their staff to join the union and involve themselves in the campaign.

Time and again the point was made that the AEU campaign was not just a wage claim but equally importantly about improving the condition of state schools and addressing the very significant workload issues we will still have to deal with.

The damage done to the growing solidarity and strengthening of the union — from graduates to principals —­ is the most gut-wrenching aspect of prematurely kissing-off of our campaign. Whatever the future holds for us there is one guarantee, and that is we will only get the strength we need from the collective, organised strength of the union.

Whatever we think of this deal, it is an absolute truth that it would not have been won without the collective strength and activity of union members.

The negotiations were never in “good faith” on the government’s part. Can we forget how the minister accused teachers of stealing time from their students, and defrauding the government over curriculum days as extra holidays? The state government’s preferred bargaining method was to use the reactionary Work Choices legislation that their federal counterparts wish to retain.

The government’s belligerence further fuelled the ongoing campaign of our detractors, who undermine and malign the work of thousands of teachers in the public education sector. That was obvious to all the community, and it is why we received the support we did when we were forced to undertake a prolonged campaign of industrial action.

The collective welfare and the goodwill of our union’s members have been sacrificed for political expediency, saving face for the state and federal governments by pushing a deal through so as not to upset the national testing program.

The announcement by the union that there was an overwhelming yes vote does not represent the sentiments of all the membership. The extreme differences between the divisions —­ accomplished teachers did very badly while graduates and expert teachers won significant wage catch-ups — is the reason why sub-branches and staffrooms are deeply divided on the wages issue.

The government’s premature announcement of a done deal to the press before union members saw the terms of the agreement, let alone ratify it, was a mischievous act of political sabotage. The union leadership should have warned them off.

It beggars belief that our leadership had no control over the government’s actions. The union leadership threatened that if we voted against we would have to go back to square one with all bets off and that would then mean remounting the campaign which would then “alienate the community”, which had supported us.

Many teachers felt that they had no choice but to vote for the agreement. They felt that if the union leaders were saying it was a good deal it was unlikely that they would have the necessary fire in the belly to reignite the campaign. It is true that once an industrial campaign has been wound down the impetus is lost.

The proper process would have been to present objectively the terms of the agreement that had been negotiated to that point and then put the pros and cons to the members for discussion. Instead they assumed there would be agreement and that their job was to “sell” it to us. Treating members with such contempt can only weaken the union by encouraging counterproductive cynicism.

We need a union leadership that is not afraid of its members and instead encourages us to voice our concerns and actively participate in our sub-branches, in the union state branch, and the labour movement generally. Let us not waste the good work done to build the union to date; we all have a better world to win.

The words penned by Ben Mulvogue in 1915, who was then secretary of the Builders Labourers Union still resound today: “The union has made possible progress not only for the working people, but advancement in many other directions —­ morally, socially and intellectually — is traceable to the existence of the organisation of the workers.”

Peter Curtisis a member of the AEU, Victoria, and a supporter of Teachers Alliance.

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