Fought and won

The good news is that workers fought this wage-cutting contract –and won.

Unionised teachers at language schools have taught their employer a lesson, writes IEU member April Holcombe.

The COVID-19 crisis has hit English language schools hard. Bosses who made millions in the education boom are trying to offload these losses onto the workforce, who are among the lowest paid and most casualised educators in the country.

I work at International House (IH), where management recently tried to exploit the crisis with a brazen assault on our pay and conditions.

On the evening of Friday 3 April, all employees received a contract that would cut wages to 15 per cent below the industry award, including for the previous fortnight. It said IH could stop paying super and would only “endeavour” to pay it back “if/when” the crisis ended. This notice was even sent to teachers who had just been let go and who were expected to take a cut on their final pay.

The message was clear: if you don’t sign, you won’t have a job next week.

Everything in this contract appeared illegal and it wouldn’t save jobs. It would lead to a race to the bottom as competitors rush to impose the same contract on their employees. All this at a time when teachers are doing more unpaid work than ever to move classes online.

The good news is that workers fought this wage-cutting contract – and won. IEU members in schools around the country came together on Zoom and WhatsApp. The contract was exposed in Facebook’s largest group for English teaching, #AusELT. Many teachers could see they weren’t alone, and unionists talked to workmates about why we had to oppose the contract.

IEU organisers wrote a scolding letter to management, promising immediate legal action if the new contract was not rescinded. The combined pressure was too much for IH. They promptly withdrew the contract first thing on Monday 6 April, even for those who had signed it. It was an important victory in enormously difficult times.

As a new teacher, I’ve learned a valuable lesson: you can’t do anything alone. Without being connected to IEU members nationwide, it would have been impossible to organise a response on a weekend in self-isolation. Some IH schools have about 50 per cent union density thanks to the hard slog of union members over many years. This was the crucial factor in our victory. These teachers have since signed onto a list of demands to protect jobs and pay.

The other lesson I’ve learned is: be the worker who sticks up for what’s right, even when you think you’re the only one. Three or four teachers in Sydney who thought they were the only ones are now in regular communication.

Join your union, and convince your workmates to do the same. United we fight, divided we beg.