Activists Conference

What is power and how do we use it? How do we create a fair post-COVID economic recovery? These questions became key themes at the IEU’s annual conference, writes journalist Monica Crouch.

About 20 members – teachers and support staff – joined IEU executive and organisers at Leura in the Blue Mountains to deepen their understanding of activism, how unions work and how they can expand unionism in their workplaces. Conference organiser Marilyn Jervis opened with a definition of power: “I have power over you if I have the resources you need.” Employers may have the jobs workers need, she said, but workers have the labour employers need. “So unions enable people to act collectively – it's how we equalise power,” she said.

Delegates heard from two guest speakers: Secretary of Unions NSW Mark Morey; and Secretary of the South Coast Labour Council Arthur Rorris, during a packed two days from April 11-13. The union’s Christine Wilkinson (pictured above right, standing) shared her path from PE teacher to IEU President, and a panel of four organisers told their stories of discovering unions and union values of fairness, equality, dignity and job security.

There was robust discussion in sessions covering campaigning; legal rights and significant legal decisions; equality and equity; connections between the Uluru Statement from the Heart and union values; and the recently released Gallop Report (see article). Also on the agenda was professional development, pressures arising from a looming new curriculum, and how workload intensification blocks excellence in teaching.

With many teachers struggling to gain pay rises for 2021 despite their phenomenal effort during the lockdowns of 2020, delegates discussed strength in numbers and the power of unity. The weekend wrapped up with a timely reminder: “United we bargain, divided we beg.”

Arthur Rorris, guest speaker

“You hear that unions just don’t have power anymore, but we do, and it relates to the ability to take industrial action – which we say differentiates free workers from slaves,” said Arthur Rorris, Secretary of the South Coast Labour Council, which represents unions from the south coast and Illawarra region. “Every police officer has a gun, but not every police officer uses it every day. Simply having the right to withdraw your labour does not mean you’re going to withdraw your labour at every opportunity. In fact, we often find the opposite: if the employer knows you can withdraw your labour, they’re more likely to come to the table and negotiate because they know you’ve got a countervailing sanction on them.”

Mark Morey, guest speaker

“The best way to stimulate growth in the economy is to disperse money throughout that economy,” said Unions NSW Secretary Mark Morey (Unions NSW is the peak body representing 600,000 union members in NSW.) “So if teachers get a 2.5% increase, what are they going to do? They’re not putting it in the stock exchange. They’re not buying islands overseas. They’re spending it in their local economies. This is not about unions being greedy – it’s about simple, straightforward, sensible economic policy.”

Nardin Hanna

“I wanted to network and find out what happens in other schools,” said Nardin Hanna, who teaches Year 5 at St Bishoy Coptic Orthodox College in Mt Druitt. “At my school we got zero increase for 2021. I wanted to get inspired and take that back to my school and share it with the teachers so we can really join together as a collective.”

Nicole Downey

“There’s quite a significant difference in pay scales between support staff in Catholic systemic schools and government schools,” said Nicole Downey, Finance and Office Manager at St Mary’s Catholic Primary School, Orange. “I wanted to learn more about the union, what it does and how it can support us, and how I can take that back to members so we can move forward and make good decisions for us all.”

Stewart Grant

“I’ve been teaching for about 14 years and the demands of the job have gotten harder every year,” said Stewart Grant, who teaches HSIE to Years 7-12 at Mount St Patrick College, Murwillumbah. “I’m interested in the union movement as a whole and I think organised labour needs a voice – it’s good for schools, for teachers and for politicians and leaders to have that dialogue and respect the opinions of people in the workforce.”

Mark Northam, IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Secretary

“Members come to the conference to learn and network, and they return to their schools as ambassadors of the union throughout their careers,” said IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Secretary Mark Northam. “It’s a recipe for strong workplaces and a successful union.”

Peter Criticos

“Even in the short time I’ve been teaching, the amount of administrative and planning work and dealing with child protection issues has increased incredibly,” said Peter Criticos, who teaches Business Studies and Legal Studies at St Joseph’s High School in Aberdeen. “How do we get more density, how do we get more involvement? I want to learn more so I can bring this back to other teachers – not just at my school but the whole Hunter Valley area.”

Roxanne Kent

“Union activism is really important in this day and age,” said Roxanne Kent, who teaches Year 3 at Emmanuel Anglican College in Ballina. “Teachers are the backbone of our society and we need to protect them and help them every step of the way to get the pay they deserve. They need wider community recognition for what they do and the many hours they put in.”

Taran Fazio

“The amount of work teachers do outside the classroom is overwhelming and leads to burnout,” said Taran Fazio, who teaches Year 5 at St Luke’s Catholic Primary School in Revesby. “I wanted to learn more – anything to help me help teachers is something I’m really interested in right now.”

Natalie Grant

“The union helps make sure we have good conditions and pay,” said Natalie Grant, a Science Technician at Mount St Patrick College, Murwillumbah. “The main issue for support staff is validation of our qualifications – the work we do can be quite undervalued.”