Every once in a while, I get the opportunity to present consecutive annual reports where Australia has the same incumbent prime minister as we had at the previous AGM. This is not one of them.
For our Union and our members, the past 12 months have been dominated by the successful resolution of our dispute with the Catholic employers over an enterprise agreement (EA), our Equal Remuneration Order case finally making it to court, ongoing and unedifying disputes of school funding formulas and for thousands of our NSW teacher members, transitioning to a NESA accreditation system with flawed and broken infrastructure.
Let me take you back to where we were this time last year.
For our members in Catholic schools across NSW and the ACT, we were in bitter dispute with the 11 dioceses over access to arbitration as an unalienable right. Those employers had attempted to deny our members the right to take Protected Industrial Action. We won that right and we used it.
Within a few weeks of our AGM, Catholic employers determined to put their own EA proposal to staff without Union endorsement. In the Catholic Weekly, CCER Executive Director Tony Farley is reported to have said: “The Independent Education Union has made unreasonable demands. Catholic employers are confident that the majority of staff think the current enterprise agreement works well for them and that sticking with what they have is a good idea. Voting yes to the agreement will guarantee staff a year’s back pay of 2.5% before Christmas”.
He was wrong. Almost 88% of employees rejected the non Union EA. Significantly this is a higher percentage than our member density in Catholic schools, which tells me that our members are genuinely influential among their colleagues, are opinion makers, and that even non members trust the Union.
Noticeably smarting from the rebuff, employers returned to the bargaining table, gave us the arbitration we demanded and processed backpays. Most members got paid before Christmas.
Negotiations over wording dragged on for the early part of this year and there were delays due to the changed employer structure in the Sydney Archdiocese but in May, when a Union endorsed EA went to the vote, it gained almost universal approval. 98.4% voted yes.
We got a very good enterprise agreement and Work Practices Agreements that begin a process of controlling workloads, particularly for teachers. Addressing workloads is unfinished business for the Union and at this stage the WPAs merely slows down the ever increasing demands on those who work in education. Those support staff who attend overnight events will at long last be recognised by an allowance for doing so. There is however much more to do.
In regard to work intensification, we have ‘scorched the snake, not killed it’.
Real fix required
A real fix requires in part a political solution. It should be a very simple fix. Politicians should stay out of the classroom. The current escalation of workloads began with Education Minister Brendan Nelson of A-E reporting fame and has since exploded. Every government since then has wanted to tinker with the work of schools.
The industrial laws that allowed employers to use multi-enterprise agreements to prohibit Protected Industrial Action, to require cumbersome ballots of members to permit that action, to put sub-standard and flawed Industrial Instruments to a vote of employees and to deny access to arbitration of protracted disputes all remain unchanged.
Despite these broken rules, we won our battle, but we should not have had to endure the delays, the costs or the hardship. You should never have had to wait 12 months for your wages and salaries to be adjusted.
It is also worth noting that the ballot of employees closed on 23 May, however the agreement was not approved by the FWC until 15 August and officially came into effect seven days later, 600 days after the expiry of the previous EA. The three year agreement will expire less than 500 days after it was made. It is time to change these rules.
The campaign that we ran to inform our members and to call them to action was recognised by the ACTU with the award for Campaign of the Year. In nominating our Branch for that award, Unions NSW Secretary, Mark Morey said that “Despite many obstacles thrown up by employers who used every industrial roadblock available to them in the Fair Work Act, the Union and its membership campaigned relentlessly to win an outstanding victory”.
In doing this he acknowledged that we made a “significant contribution to the ‘Change the Rules’ campaign”.
Although we did not abandon traditional campaigning methods, we made much greater use of digital media to broadcast our message and to be in those spaces our target audience inhabit. We made extensive use of social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Facebook Live, recorded a dozen short YouTube messages and used SMS for urgent reminders. We learned a lot in doing these things.