In Focus: Deb James

The reluctant leader

When a luminary leaves a prominent role after a long tenure, the tributes are often serious matters, full of important words like respect and dignity, Will Brodie writes. That’s certainly the case for Deb James, the much-loved General Secretary of the IEU Victoria Tasmania, and President of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, who is retiring after 33 years in state and federal union leadership roles.

But another word pops up most frequently in testimonials about Deb.


Michele O’Neil, ACTU President describes Deb as “formidable, passionate, and determined fighter for IEU members” but also as a “comic”.

Susan Hopgood, President of Education International, says Deb’s “good humour and ability to bring people together” were crucial to her success.

Former IEUA Secretary Christine Cooper says Deb has the “unique ability to help others enjoy life”.

“No matter how serious things get, she will always find a way to help us take a breath and laugh at the situation – or at ourselves.”

“Laughter is vital. Deb has taught us that we need to not only celebrate our wins, but we must find ways to refresh and harness our energies for the next fight.

“‘Fun’ in the end is a seriously motivating energy which brings about hope – and the ability to find hope is the most significant contribution that Deb gave to us.”

Deb has loved her jobs and excelled at them. But there was no grand plan for what turned out to be a grand career.

“I was a girl from a working-class family. My dad was a milkman, my mum worked in factories and at times was a cleaner… I went to St Monica’s in the Melbourne suburb of Epping. You became a teacher or a nurse… that’s what girls did if they were in Catholic secondary schools in the 1970s.”

Deb’s Deputy Secretary of 16 years, Loretta Cotter, dubs Deb’s background the ‘Catholic conveyor belt’.

It was a unique school excursion organised by her politics teacher Terry Monagle that planted a seed for Deb about unions and activism.

“He took a carload of Year 12 girls into a meeting one night in the Trades Hall building in Carlton. We sat up in the council chambers in the observer gallery and I was absolutely blown away by the vibe of the place, the significance of what they were doing, the business that they were conducting… that experience really had an impact on me…”

However, that seed lay dormant for a long time. Like so many high achievers of her generation from her background, Deb became the first member of her family to tackle tertiary education, starting a three-year Diploma of Education course at Mercy Teachers’ College in 1976.

When she started teaching in 1979 at St Bernard’s Coburg, Deb taught 44 grade fives, her principal was a nun and there was no union.

The first award covering her sector – and the first union – didn’t emerge until “about 1985”.

By 1986/7 Deb was a Rep (delegate), and she soon progressed to the executive of what became known as the Victorian Catholic Primary Schools Staff Association. There were different associations for Catholic primary and secondary schools then, and another for staff in independent schools.

Another ‘watershed’ moment came in 1990 when she addressed thousands of colleagues at the first-ever strike of the Victorian Catholic primary and secondary unions, an amazing experience that she now sees as a “trigger moment” for leaving teaching.

In 1990, she became a field officer (Organiser), for the VCPSSA and by 1992 she was working in the fabled Trades Hall building that had so entranced her as a 16-year-old.

She’d “absolutely loved” teaching but felt the same about the new gig.

She visited three Catholic primary schools a day, five days a week.

Deb would progress from field officer to Assistant IEU Federal Secretary in two years, despite not seeking higher stations.

“I wasn’t out there pushing people out of the way... there was a bit of ‘right place right time’, about how I got jobs.”

Deb insists she received “taps on the shoulder” from higher-ups.

“People see something in you that maybe you don’t see in yourself and encourage you . . . I’ve certainly benefitted from that.”

Deb made the “huge jump” to IEUA Assistant Secretary, and it was a whirlwind. Two weeks learning advocacy at Clyde Cameron College in Canberra, then into the “deep end” in Sydney, appearing before the Arbitration Commission.

Reliant on fax machines and dazzled by the ‘brick phones’ of Queensland colleagues, Deb travelled all over Australia, bargaining, serving logs of claims on hundreds of employers, dealing with disputes, and expanding the coverage of the union to all staff who worked in non-government schools.

Among the features of her IEUA job were “overwhelming” trips to East Timor to help support locals in their fight for independence. Deb helped deliver medical supplies prior to the 1999 ballot, and teachers and school supplies – and later she served on the board of the East Timor Friendship Schools Project with East Timor’s First Lady Kirsty Sword Gusmao.

Intellectually challenging work

In 1994, the three Victorian non-government school staff associations merged to form the Victorian Independent Education Union (VIEU). The IEUA had moved to Melbourne, Deb’s new office was only a door away from the new entity and she’d begun mixing with its staff.

In 2000, after another tap on the shoulder, Deb applied for the vacant role as Victorian Deputy Secretary.

Deb said the federal work was “interesting and intellectually challenging”, but the VIEU job appealed because “in the branches, that’s where the members are, it’s the coal face and the work is hands on”.

She became part of a highly successful hands-on leadership “team of two” with General Secretary Tony Keenan.

Only six years old, VIEU had faced “financially immensely challenging times” after a landmark win on pay parity with government school staff in 1997, a “key moment in the history of the union”.

Catholic employers retaliated to that triumph by stopping payroll deductions for union fees.

“In those days the vast majority of employees were on payroll deductions and the union was heavily reliant on that income. It took years to get people back paying again.”

Despite this setback, the young union – whose staff could all fit around a small table – grew and prospered.

Deb attributes that growth to “being out there at the grass roots, talking to people”, recruitment efforts surrounding enterprise bargaining campaigns, and Tony’s wise and sharing leadership.

The next position that crept up on Deb was VIEU General Secretary at the end of 2005 when Tony Keenan departed.

“It was a shock. I had no aspirations to be the boss or the person in charge. That has never been me despite the fact that I’m a bossy boots and have strong views on things.

“But if you’re going to be the deputy of anything you have to be prepared to be the leader. You’re the person who’s been at the table. You do it because you have to do it.”

All female leadership team

Deb formed, with Loretta Cotter, one of the union movement’s first all-female elected leadership teams, presiding over “stable, steady, and cohesive” consolidation.

They orchestrated landmark dual campaigning actions with the Australian Education Union and the merger with Tasmanian Catholic and independent unions in 2010/2011. The rebadged Independent Education Union Victorian Tasmania (IEUVT) has never stopped growing.

The IEUVT fought against divisive performance pay proposals; demanded improvements to Victoria’s discrimination laws, won in 2021; promoted equal pay and conditions for education support staff in Tasmania; and backed vaccinations during the pandemic.

Deb says these are issues the union must make a stand on, and social justice campaigns were most strongly supported by members. The Tasmanian merger was done because it was “the right thing to do”.

Deb also became the first woman President of the IEUA and the first IEU member to become President of Trades Hall Council.

Deb still “can’t believe” it all.

“I feel so privileged and so lucky to have had the opportunities that I’ve had. My working life wasn’t about making lots of money, it wasn’t about making profits for other people, it wasn’t about ripping people off.

“It was in work that served other people where it’s not about you it’s about them.”

Pushed, Deb concedes that she probably always was a natural leader, but she was a “troublemaker leader”.

“In high school I was the one who organised the alcohol for a school retreat that got eight of us expelled.…

“I’d have a go, I’d have a crack back, but I was quite friendly about it, and I got along well with the teachers.

“I’d stand up for friends, but I didn’t run around picking fights.”

Throughout Deb’s career, she stood up for members, and fought like hell.

It was fun.

Changes in education

Deb says the changes in teaching during her career has been “monumental”.

“It’s a complete shift; there weren’t individual learning programs, wellbeing programs… education is much more complicated, and teachers are expected to do so much more in the same amount of time.”

Deb hopes an Agreement in Victorian Catholic education will be an important starting point in the crusade against workload intensification.

“Employers have known this is a problem, but they don’t really want to make a meaningful change to fix things and it really contributes to teacher burnout.”

She says making better use of Education Support Staff, and paying them better, is a key to better workload outcomes.

IEU work

For the IEU, there is no replacement for grass roots personal engagement but “the mode of communications and means of engagement have changed”.

“Industrially, school-by-school stuff – bargaining in individual independent schools is challenging, and you need a lot of people to do it. Reportable conduct issues in the last eight years have exacerbated the workload.”

She says IEUVT is financially secure and is in “great hands” with its new leadership.

“You need new blood, fresh people, fresh ideas. Renewal is a good thing to give people space to do their stuff and let them run things their way. I think the union is well respected as a key stakeholder by employers and government and it’s a genuine voice for the profession.”

The union movement

“There’s a shift in what a union member looks like. It’s not just a male building worker in a hi-viz vest and a hardhat. Those workers are still at the core of unionism, but the majority of union workers are women in health and education and in the public service.

“I think there’s a challenge to further engage young people. And we need to debunk old myths about union officials. They’re not all cardigan-wearing old guys!

“The future of the union movement is extremely positive.

“Just look at the leaders – Sally McManus and Michele O’Neil are phenomenal!”