After three state-wide strikes and five weeks of rolling stoppages, some Victorian teachers have won large pay increases of 10 and 15 per cent over the next year in an “in-principle” agreement between the Australian Education Union (AEU) and the Brumby government.

On the eve of further threatened strikes during national testing, this represents a backdown by the government on its attempt to impose a below inflation pay cap of 3.25 per cent a year.

Victorian teachers, who have been the nation’s lowest paid, have won their demand for pay parity with their NSW colleagues, along with conditions to improve job security by reducing the number of teachers on short-term contracts. The government had to drop its demand for “productivity trade-offs” in the form of curriculum planning days during current school holidays.

However, the large pay increases will not go to all teachers. Under the new agreement classroom teachers will gain pay rises ranging between 13 and 24 per cent over three and a half years. This includes at least an initial 4.9 per cent rise followed by three 2.7 per cent increases.

The gains are uneven depending on teachers’ place on the pay scale. Changes in salary structures give much larger initial rises of about 10 per cent or $5000 for graduate teachers and 15 per cent or about $10,000 for expert teachers at the top of the scale, who will now get an annual salary of $75,000.

Teachers in the middle “accomplished” band will receive only the base percentage increases-which are less than inflation-and a $1000 “bonus payment”.

The union should have pushed for the big pay rises some teachers will receive across the board. However, taking into account annual increment increases, all teachers will see their actual pay increase by about 25 per cent over the life of the agreement.

The union’s state-wide strikes during the campaign were the best supported in its history, with over 25,000 teachers striking and 10,000 attending the central mass meeting and march on February 14. This was followed by rolling regional stoppages that mobilised teachers to protest at the offices of local Labor MPs and an effective media advertising campaign. As the dispute continued public support moved solidly behind the teachers and against the government.

During the dispute the state government infuriated teachers by continually calling for “productivity improvements”. This ignored the already increased workload resulting from the first Education Blueprint, a series of curriculum and “school reform” programs. The government even released an entirely new Blueprint for School Reform complete with schemes to “tackle teacher underperformance” during the dispute.

Before the Federal election, teachers in government schools had voted to authorise unlimited industrial action under a Workchoices imposed secret ballot.

The first strike, held three days before the federal election, saw thousands of young teachers striking for the first time.

Teachers in catholic schools took separate state-wide unprotected strike action in March to support the campaign. By mobilising the AEU has recruited 6500 teachers to the union since the start of the campaign!

In a final step the AEU threatened three consecutive days of four hour strikes to coincide with national literacy and numeracy student tests in May. The data from this test is increasingly used by education departments and ministers to increase school “accountability” and compare “school performance”.

The teachers’ campaign has raised the need for re-investment in public education rather than demanding that teachers, students and schools be more “productive” and “accountable”.

The Victorian government will now bring forward the employment of 210 “teacher’s assistants” from 2009. These positions have not existed since they were abolished in a series of cutbacks from the mid 1980s. In addition the government has committed to spending $1.14 billion to refurbish over 600 run-down public schools by 2010.

The pay gains won have set a good precedent for other workers to win above inflation increases. The Victorian teachers show that if we stand together and take action we can build stronger unions and win real gains.

In the current economic climate, with inflation eating into household budgets, that’s exactly what we need.

By Hamish McPherson

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