There are few things that come around with more regularity than enterprise bargaining. There’s been enough said and written by the union movement to know that enterprise bargaining as it stands in 2022 is the plaything of the employer.
The evidence is the stagnation of wages nationally through a time, prior to COVID and the war in Ukraine, when the economy was growing, and profits were up.
In the past our union tended to use enterprise bargaining as the catch all for a myriad of industrial matters that were tricky or unsatisfactory – over 100 separate matters last round. Few of these were achieved. The consequence has been a lack of strategic wins that advance the working conditions of educators in any significant way.
In negotiating the last enterprise agreement, we were forced to march on the streets just to preserve AEU representation on Personnel Advisory Committee (PAC) and funding for student support. We marched to maintain conditions, and of course, we had to. Thankfully, we were successful.
But our platform for bargaining this year looks very different. It will be a narrow claim that seeks to progress the working conditions of educators, because these are what undergraduates, new educators, and experienced teachers are taking into consideration when they decide whether to study teaching, whether to stay on, or whether to leave the profession entirely.
COVID has exposed the funding shortfalls of our public education system. Educators have papered over these cracks with blood, sweat and tears, but their goodwill is wearing thin.
We are a guilt-ridden profession that values effective learning relationships with children to ensure they are provided with every opportunity to learn successfully. As we tend to put children first, sacrificing our own wellbeing for the sake of our students, our goodwill has been easily exploited.
State governments - Liberal and Labor alike - have pocketed billions of dollars in unpaid educator overtime over the past decade, all while piling on the demands and suppressing wage growth.
The usual strategy employed by governments is to block negotiations and wait out union action in support of a claim. They do this because they want members to lose their resolve and participation levels to decline. In the last day or so, reading Teachers of Adelaide, a comment posted said something like, “I hope the AEU will be strong in these negotiations.” We will be.
So where does union power come from?
Members and potential-members must understand that union power is not derived from a campaign t-shirt, a marketing strategy, regular media appearances, a strongly worded letter, or table thumping during negotiations. The strength of the union comes from a membership made up of a collective of workers who are willing to withdraw labor, i.e. take industrial action when called upon.
Some members will find that reality confronting. The AEU is strong because we have thousands of members who have historically been willing to actively campaign for a better future.
We should not take our collective strength for granted. Union membership is declining. This time around, there will be many potential members who will support the AEU’s platform to make significant changes to working conditions, improve levels of student support, and ensure educators are paid what they are worth.
Look at your workplace – every single non-member represents an incremental loss of union power, that’s valuable leverage lost at your workplace, and at the bargaining table.
How is this time different?
Three significant documents have been produced that seek to address the teacher shortage crisis. These are the Federal Government’s Draft National Teacher Workforce Action Plan, the ideas gathered via the AEU’s Fix the Crisis forums, and a comprehensive report from the University of South Australia entitled, Teachers at Breaking Point.
Three matters have been consistently identified through these reports, and will inform our bargaining position:
The teacher shortage crisis has seen states offering deals intended to attract interstate teachers. Globally we are hearing of developed countries - like Australia - poaching teachers from other nations too. We should be focusing upon resolving the shortage through state-based measures that build our local workforce without robbing from other states or countries. A competitive salary is a step in the right direction.
In addition to the matters above, ensuring that country public education is staffed with qualified teachers who are teaching within their qualification is essential. There must be transparent and consistent incentives to attract and retain teachers in country schools. The quality and supply of housing is detrimental to country working conditions, and there needs to be a review into this crisis.
We face a teacher shortage, and we have consulted with members about the best solutions. There is no quick fix, but the bottom line is, if we fail to address the excessive workloads and poor working conditions that South Australian educators currently face, we only exacerbate an escalating crisis for years to come.
AEU members have the solutions. Let’s hope the government is prepared to listen and act.
President, AEU SA