The year in review

This is an abridged version of IEU Secretary John Quessy’s report to the IEUA NSW/ACT Branch AGM. The full AGM report is available here

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.

The rules are broken. It is time to change the rules and to change the government.

The support of most Catholic school principals for the Union and for their teachers and support staff during the battle around arbitration is appreciated and acknowledged. Predictably CCER attempted to wedge principals and to run interference, but most of our principal members are far too canny to fall for that.

ERO case

This was the year when our Equal Remuneration Order (ERO) case for early childhood teachers finally got to court. Commenced five years ago, our task is to prove that early childhood teachers (mostly female) earn less that a comparator industry (mostly male) performing work of equal value. This case has taken an interesting twist opening up greater scope and raising questions about the fairness and relevance of the modern award rates of pay for teachers.

In some ways this case is part of how our Union is addressing the gender pay gap. We also take the view that we are trying to tackle the artificial low pay and inequity which is a feature of modern awards. More broken rules. The case is however an extremely significant one for all teachers nationally and yet another example of our Union “punching well above our weight”.

Modern hero

Perhaps the best example of our Union having influence beyond what our size would suggest is the Khayam decision. In August last year, Saeid Khayam spoke to Council about his determination to challenge his employer NAVITAS regarding them not renewing his contract after 12 years of continuously doing so. NAVITAS argued that he was a casual and had no rights to claim relief from an unfair dismissal. While the first hearing went against us, the appeal to the full bench was successful, creating an important precedent and much greater access to unfair dismissal rights for our members in ELICOS and across other industries. Other unions are already citing our case and relying on the full bench decision.

Khayam was offered strong inducements to settle this matter out of court, but he was absolutely determined to pursue principle rather than self interest. In doing this, he becomes a modern hero of the trade union movement.

ELICOS jungle

The jungle that is the ELICOS and private college sector continues to be just that – a jumble of poor employment practices and wage theft where it is difficult to recruit, to bargain and to maintain membership against the cycles of redundancies created by government policy which is to give English language contracts to the lowest bidder.

Across our sector we mostly see responsible employers. Never perfect and we always have plenty of disputes on a range of matters. Our members have chosen their careers not to get rich but to contribute positively to their students and their communities. To build a better world. It is unsurprising that so many also engage in what might best be described as activities promoting social justice.

Workers comp

During the year, we have settled a dozen workers compensation cases through the courts and initiated two dozen. Our workers compensation solicitors New Law in NSW and Maurice Blackburn in the ACT have been instrumental in bringing these cases to satisfactory completion. On behalf of our members, I note with appreciation their commitment to just outcomes.

New to NESA

On 1 January, more than 60,000 NSW pre 2004 teachers were accredited by NESA and immediately commenced a Maintenance of Accreditation phase. This represents the majority of our NSW teacher members and puts in place the final piece of school teacher registration across Australia.

It is no coincidence that a revised NESA policy streamlines the Maintenance of Accreditation procedure, abolishes the written report and rationalises the recording of PD. Teachers will now simply make a declaration that they have continued to address the APST and principals will attest that this is so and indicate the processes which provide that assurance. This is entirely due to the Unions involved in working with NESA officers on this.

It is not the gift of benevolent employer groups but one way in which our key people worked to minimise the workload implications for our members. I quote from the new policy “the activities and practices that form the basis of this attestation will be comprised of processes that are in place and will not generate additional requirements for the teacher”.

This move to universal accreditation provides access to mutual recognition with other states and territories but has not been without trauma for teachers and severe embarrassment and reputational damage for NESA.

eTAMs failure

The total failure of the NESA eTAMs platform precisely at the time such a large number of teachers entered their first maintenance of accreditation phase, were required to commence logging and evaluating their PD and needed advice on a range of other issues was disastrous. The NESA email and phone system did not cope and it was common for members to report dozens of unanswered emails and phone calls.

Practical and useful advice from NESA was seldom evident or timely and the IEU stepped in to fill the void in various ways and on numerous occasions. We fielded answered and acted on hundreds of enquiries and made many individual representations to NESA staff on behalf of members.

The NESA system went into meltdown, the Union went into overdrive.

PD program

The bulk of our PD program in the first half of this year was given over to Accreditation issues and more than 1200 members participated in our mostly online MoA courses with extremely positive feedback. Our purpose here is entirely about minimising workloads for members through understanding the requirements. It is part of enforcing a policy that we helped to shape with our members interests in mind.

Another significant PD offering was a four part Behaviour Management course run online over four weeks. This was fully subscribed within hours of advertising and a second series immediately scheduled. A third series is programed for this term.

PD offerings like these are designed to help members develop strategies to minimise and deal with daily stressors, to ease the burden and to address workload.

Our PD team have taken in excess of 3000 bookings for events in 2018 including those yet to run later in the year. Our ongoing partnership with the Teacher Learning Network to provide specifically targeted early childhood PD adds over 2000 to this. By year end, IEU members will have more than 10,000 hours of NESA Registered PD recorded in their names as a result of Union provided events.

We have plans to do much more PD and Union training in the online space and are building a resource The IEU Zone’ to host a range of resources and platforms including on-demand downloadable packages.

Training our chapter representatives and activists is as important to the IEU as it is to all other unions. We do not have the luxury of paid trade union training leave in any of our EAs and covering member replacement costs is a significant financial impost. Notwithstanding this limit, 200 members had access to Reps training throughout the year and the annual Activists Conference at Easter was again well attended and praised by participants.

Information sharing

The sharing of information is proposed as fallout from the Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse and Child Safety concerns. The current legislation in NSW (and soon in the ACT) requires employers to report to NESA (and soon to TQI) any information of which they are aware which might lead to the suspension or revocation of a teacher’s registration or accreditation. Some independent schools including Catholic independent schools are already reporting child protection type allegations even before school-based investigations have been concluded or in some cases even commenced.

Widespread distribution of allegations, untested and unproven claims or reporting findings that do not warrant any significant sanction is a very dangerous move and one to be vigorously opposed.

There is much still to be done to arrive at a system providing natural justice and fairness for our members and legislative changes are likely the only solution. Representation on these matters will continue.

As an organisation of considerable size, we are able to provide a range of material and commercial benefits to our members including access to Teachers Health Fund, Teachers Mutual Bank, Union Shopper and various others. We are affiliated with the Workers Health Centre and the Welfare Rights Centre to enable referral of members with quite specific legal and medical issues around social security, exposure to toxic substances and similar specialised problems.

Our suite of benefits will increase in 2019 when we discontinue plastic membership cards in favor of a digital Member Advantage cards which provides access to a range of discounts. No member benefit is as popular however as participation in the teacher exchange program.

This year the Union facilitated 20 exchanges mostly to Canada. These included a mid-year swap, a second double exchange for a Canadian couple and a record fourth exchange for one well-travelled teacher. The coming year will see 18 teachers trade jobs. Among these are two for a second time and one ACT school hosting two exchanges.