The NSW O’Farrell government has justified public sector cutbacks with claims of a budget shortfall. Then $1 billion extra was suddenly found in the NSW budget thanks to accounting errors identified in October. But this hasn’t stopped O’Farrell from driving through cuts to education of $1.7 billion over four years.

TAFE will suffer particularly hard, with 800 jobs to be cut. TAFE courses will be opened up to market competition, with private providers allowed to bid to run courses and undercut government institutions on costs. The government is also cutting funding to courses that do not fill designated skill shortages and lead directly to jobs.

Groups of TAFE students have responded angrily, with a well attended action against Education Minister Adrian Piccoli late last month, and a rally called by Fine Arts students (whose courses are one of many under threat) outside state parliament on Wednesday November 14.

Protests across TAFE in NSW

The TAFE cuts follow the disastrous path in other states, most infamously in Victoria where private providers have grown from running 14 to 40 per cent of courses since competitive tendering was introduced in 2008.

We have already seen the outcome of the Federal government’s competitive tendering of the Adult Migrant English Program (AMES), with the once proud AMES Teachers Association now officially dissolved.

The NSW Teachers Federation has organised a major community day of action on November 18. Such community campaigning is a necessary part of our fight for public education, and if the rally is built into a major show of force, it can lay basis for ensuring we have public support for the strike campaign that is needed to defeat the cuts.

But there are worrying signs that this is not what Federation officials are aiming for. Teachers have been instructed not to attend in red union t-shirts, as we normally would for a strike rally. If the union was serious about mobilising for the rally, red union t-shirts would be dwarfed by the numbers on the day.

Moreover, encouraging other unions to be present with their own banners and flags would unite the whole union movement in support of our fight.

The campaign for public education also needs to target Julia Gillard’s federal Labor government. The federal government is driving the push for opening up TAFEs to competitive tendering nationally, the same changes the Liberals are implementing in NSW. But Federation and the AEU have failed to publicly criticise this, or Julia Gillard’s weak response to the Gonski recommendations for schools funding, including her kowtowing to Australia’s most elite schools.

Need for strike action

The Progressive PSA victories in the Public Service Association (PSA) election, which is still facing cuts to working conditions and jobs, means the possibilities for united industrial action against O’Farrell are now greater. O’Farrell is also looking to take on firefighters, recently attempting to close fire stations in a bid to cut overtime pay.

There is every reason why teachers should be confident about taking strike action against O’Farrell’s cuts and 2.5 per cent public sector pay cap.

But by again settling for a 2.5 per cent increase over school teachers’ salaries for one year from January 1, 2013 without getting an acceptable agreement for TAFE, we are in danger of repeating the mistake of three years ago when TAFE teachers were effectively left to fight alone. Such isolation allowed the then Labor state government to undermine conditions, and eventually O’Farrell to peel TAFE teachers away into the Federal Fair Work Australia industrial system.

The cuts to public education in NSW can be beaten—but teachers need to start pressuring the Teachers Federation officials to get serious about preparing for strike action.

By Mark Goudkamp

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