Teachers in Victorian public schools are in for a fight to beat the state government’s 2.5 per cent public sector wide pay cap and stop cutbacks to education. Negotiations between the Australian Education Union (AEU) and the Baillieu Government for a new enterprise agreement have stalled over the government’s insistence that any pay increases above 2.5 per cent must be paid for in “productivity savings” which  can only really be achieved by increasing class sizes.

The  government also want to impose an 80 per cent limit on the number of teachers who can achieve annual professional standards based pay increases and use the savings to fund a “performance pay” scheme. There is also a proposal to increase the face to face teaching hours of secondary teachers by about one hour per week.

The AEU has set a deadline of April 16 for the government to improve its offer before commencing an industrial action ballot. A concerted campaign of state wide stoppages and workbans will be needed to win teachers’ claims. There is also the possibility of future united action between teachers and administrative and teacher aide staff who have commenced bargaining over a separate agreement.

Teachers can take confidence from the outcome of the high profile nurses dispute, fought over pay and in defence of nurse to patient ratios. The Australian Nurses Federation (ANF) defied Fair Work orders to terminate industrial action as rank and file ANF members led rolling stoppages and protests across the hospital system.

The ANF avoided compulsory arbitration by Fair Work to force the government and hospital managers into direct negotiations.  Union leaders are keen to avoid compulsory arbitration as legislation and legal precedent limit the “allowable matters” that can be arbitrated to exclude many working conditions and staffing ratios or levels.

The outcome was a win for nurses on the key issues; nurse to patient ratios retained and improved in some wards, improved career structure, pay and conditions, higher night duty and on call rates and no Health Assistants in ratios, no split shifts, and the same limits on the use of a six hour shifts. The result on pay is more mixed with nurses achieving 2.5 per cent plus a Professional Development Allowance of $1000 in the first year, and $900 in each subsequent year. This gives overall annual increases of between 3.5 per cent and 4 per cent per annum.

The nurses dispute shows that the Baillieu Government can be successfully challenged by a determined campaign of industrial action which wins public support for the defence of public services, jobs and conditions. Baillieu is in a weak position, holding only a one seat majority and is vulnerable to pressure. He won the election with a series of opportunistic pledges he never intended to honour—including to make teachers the highest paid in the nation.

The nurses hit the government with public protests and an ad campaign demanding that the Government “Respect Our Work” and stating that Baillieu was “Putting money before patient lives”. The AEU is also running a public campaign against $480 million cuts including support for vocational education in secondary schools (VCAL) and teacher professional development coaches.

This is occurring in a wider context of austerity measures with the Government forecasting a $1.3 billion surplus by 2014-15. To achieve this surplus they have committed to cutting 3600 or one in ten public sector jobs!

Teachers must make a stand in defence of our wages and conditions and also against the Liberals’ austerity drive. A substantial yes vote in the ballot will be the first step in mobilising for the biggest possible turnout for subsequent strike action.

Hamish McPherson

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