The leadership of the NSW Teachers Federation has shamefully squandered an opportunity to strike a serious blow against the O’Farrell Liberal NSW government.
In mid-February, NSW TAFE teachers were set to vote for industrial action over their salaries claim of 5 per cent for each of the next three years. But even before the ballot results were known, the new President Maurie Mulheron was on the phone to Liberal Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, to offer to settle for 2.5 per cent, the wage cap set by the Liberal government.
The ballot was required as TAFE members are now covered by federal Fair Work laws, after O’Farrell passed legislation to separate TAFE teachers and from the bulk of school teacher Federation members.
Ironically, with Fair Work Australia wage increases running between 3 and 5 per cent, action by TAFE teachers would have likely broken O’Farrell’s wage cap, and put serious pressure on O’Farrell’s laws.
Education Minister Piccoli was already under immense pressure his failure to provide school transport for students with disabilities, an issue that had seen the sacking of two Education department sub-heads.
Teachers could also have built on the existing discontent with O’Farrell. The government suffered a 17 per cent swing in its first by-election late last year and there is widespread community anger over coal seam gas. Polling shows 85 percent of people oppose the intended power station sell off and the wage cap.
The TAFE ballot should have been a springboard to reignite the campaign to break the wage cap and win a pay rise above 2.5 per cent. The fact that Piccoli—and Treasurer Mike Baird—so readily agreed to fund the TAFE 2.5 per cent shows how limited the claim was.
The leadership claimed that TAFE members were more concerned about retaining their conditions than wages. But there was no real threat to their conditions.
Yet it is understandable that TAFE members were concerned. Federation officials left TAFE members out to dry in 2010. TAFE teachers then had to take rear guard action to prevent trade-offs such as five extra hours of attendance time per week.
The bulk of TAFE members have little confidence that the leaders would stand up for their conditions, so were willing to settle for so little just to hang on to their existing conditions.
However the limited settlement for TAFE means there is no hope that the Federation fighting for anything more than 2.5 per cent for all teachers.
Instead the February state council has now carried a resolution to try to seek an additional rise with a drawn out “permanent” community campaign and lobbying policy. While further industrial action is authorised, the fact is the policy is a retreat from mobilising the tens of thousands of members who turned out for the union rallies in September last year.
There is a glimmer of hope with the state council resolution, moved by the Activist Teachers Network and supported by the officials, to call central rallies to resist the moves of both the Gillard and O’Farrell governments to give local principals the power to “hire and fire”.
The wages deal settled is a setback. Rank and file teachers will need to work hard to turn that around to build support for the staffing rallies.

John Morris, Canterbury-Bankstown Teachers’ Association

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