“The best union meeting I’ve attended in years.” That was the response of many NSW TAFE teachers after a 3000-strong mass meeting filled and electrified the inside of Sydney Town Hall on 11 February.
The 24 hour strike, held in defiance of orders and the threat of fines from the NSW Industrial Relations Commission (IRC), was a welcome antidote to the demoralisation that had taken hold among some NSW Teachers’ Federation TAFE members after a year of short, locally-based stoppages and a hostile IRC decision.
As the meeting resolution read, “the NSW government has attacked the delivery of quality TAFE education and sought to undermine the working conditions of TAFE teachers by seeking to implement WorkChoices style changes to their working conditions.”
Teachers’ anger broke out in a fiery chant of “we will win” that lasted for several minutes. In the discussion, all four speakers wanted to escalate industrial action, including the suggestion that TAFE teachers remain on strike indefinitely until Premier Keneally agree to meet with the Federation leadership. While NSWTF President Bob Lipscomb successfully argued to reject these amendments, there was clearly a mood for more radical action.
Tapping into this mood could have meant that TAFE teachers could have truly “won” a better settlement, especially if we seriously acted on the threat to mobilise school teachers’ support.
However, the mass meeting’s impact was sufficient that Keneally subsequently met with Federation on numerous occasions, and even the SMH ran an editorial supporting more investment in TAFE.
The deal removes some of the worst attacks, such as now allowing overtime payments to be paid fortnightly, stopping the summer vacation from being counted as long service leave if such leave spanned the vacation, and allowing some professional development hours to be counted as teaching hours.
However, attendance time is still being increased to 35 hours. The agreement states that five hours may be at home, but allows managers to impose “additional on-site attendance” where “TAFE business needs” require it. The requirement to teach up to 30 hours per week face to face remains, although there is an “unreasonable hours test for all hours above 20 a week”.
While TAFE teachers have fought with much determination, there are lessons for us as teacher unionists. It’s now just over twelve months since the ‘joint union-government working party’ was set up to find ‘savings’ in TAFE—at the same time that a deal with minor trade-offs had been struck between Federation and the government for school teachers.
This cut off TAFE from the bulk of the Federation’s membership, giving the Department of Education the confidence to go on the offensive against TAFE’s highly casualised workforce. Teacher activists need to ensure the government and the Education department don’t breach our unity again.
We also need to be prepared to resist the next wave of attacks on TAFE, no matter who wins the 2011 state election. Already, in Victoria, all courses have been opened up to competition from private providers, and HECS-style fees are being imposed on TAFE students—who often come from the most marginalised sections of Australian society.
By Mark Goudkamp

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