Reflections of an exceptional organiser

''The union represents the human values that the employers, when it comes to the crunch, can sometimes forget''

Organiser Peter Bishop is set to retire this Christmas after almost 22 years at the IEU. Here he shares what he calls his “unreliable memoirs” of the past two decades.

Peter Bishop began his teaching career at St Clare’s College in Canberra in 1981 before relocating to John Paul II Senior High School in Marayong for nearly 15 years, where he taught English, Studies of Religion and General Studies, before JPII merged with another school in 1998 to become St Andrew’s College.

Bishop left the classroom after Term 4 at Terra Sancta College (since renamed St John Paul II College) in Schofields in 1998. He began his organising career with the IEU on 27 January 1999. A member of the IEU for 36 years, Bishop was also a Rep and a Council delegate before becoming an organiser.

Bishop describes the many IEU members he has had the privilege of working with over the years as “workers for the common good who have a clear eye to the best outcome for their students and colleagues”.

It has been his mission, to facilitate rights at work and to “call out the occasional nonsense” that comes from politicians and education authorities. “The union represents the human values that the employers, when it comes to the crunch, can sometimes forget,” Bishop said.

Easing the load

Throughout his time with the IEU, Bishop said the union has always striven for fairness in the workplace, and the issue that most undermines this will be a familiar one to members. “Excessive workloads in schools are the basis of a lot of problems,” Bishop said. “They are the constant problem about which members are crying out.

“As workloads increase, resilience diminishes. People are tired. Teachers simply cannot continue to perform and when they’re perceived to not be performing against some new and unreasonable norm, they can end up facing a stressful performance review.”

Members can also find themselves up against supervising extracurricular activities, NAPLAN responsibilities, out-of-touch leadership and aggrieved parents, yet discouragement to industrial action also takes a familiar form: good old Catholic guilt.

“They’re told ‘You can’t have industrial action because it will disrupt teaching and learning’,” Bishop said. “But if some dignitary comes to the school, it’s OK for them to disrupt it, but not for teachers to protect their own welfare. It’s the union’s job to call this out before teachers get to breaking point.”

The consequences of excessive workloads extend beyond burnout. “Members’ abilities to share their stories and collectivise are diminished when they’re kept so busy,” Bishop said. “So it’s our job to fuel not just action, but also hope.”

Pushing for progress

Bishop said one of the greatest gains for both teachers and support staff over his long career in the non-government education sector was the introduction of paid parental leave in 1994. At the time, Bishop was still a teacher at John Paul II.

“I remember the chapter meeting,” he said. “Basically, we were looking at the diversion of a certain percentage of the pay rise to fund what at that stage became six weeks’ paid maternity leave. And there was not one word of demur in that chapter meeting and I suspect across other schools in the state.

“This was an issue of justice which was going to affect women particularly and I suppose that’s the most chuffed I’ve ever felt at a union meeting. I thought, ‘we’re really a collective, aren’t we?’ We are a collective of values. It was brilliant. I felt so proud at that meeting. I felt 10ft tall.”

Comments from colleagues

IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Secretary Mark Northam has nothing but high praise for Bishop. “Peter’s capacity to advocate for members and progress individual concerns while playing a key role in large-scale campaigns has been invaluable,” Northam says. “His ability to address members on a wide range of issues in a compelling and knowledgeable manner is legendary.”

Assistant Secretary Pam Smith offers equal commendation. “Peter’s contribution to the union as a member, as a Rep, as a Council delegate, as a member of the Executive, and as an organiser, colleague and friend, has been extraordinary,” Smith said. “Peter will live on in so many ways in the history of the union, in the contribution he has made, and how he’s valued by members.”

Note of encouragement

Bishop may be leaving the IEU but he’s lost none of his fire. He rails against the “great Tory conspiracy that undermines the value of the collective” and urges members and organisers to keep returning to the real values that need to be applied to workers: democracy, decent living standards, dignity and respect at work, secure employment, freedom from discrimination and equality of opportunity, to name a few.

“When we’re dealing with malevolence and self-seeking, we should call it out for what it is,” he said. “And we have the greatest gifts with which to work: the trust and good will of our members, the teachers and support staff. So we start off from a position of relative strength, because we know we are in a strong moral position.”

Monica Crouch