Catholic employer denies access to industrial umpire

Despite a long tradition of Catholic school year timetables matching government schools, the Catholic Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn has decided to re-organise their school year out of step with ACT government schools, adding an extra day to their staff’s timetable.

The NSW and ACT Catholic Systemic Schools Enterprise Agreement 2015 states, in Annexure D, that “the parties agree that the school year in ACT school will be organised in line with ACT government schools”.

This clause has operated since at least the 1990s and has ensured that teachers in ACT Catholic schools have worked the same days (or less) than their government counterparts. That is, the school years have been in line, unless the Archdiocese had exempted employees from working certain days with the aligned school year.

In the second half of last year it became apparent to the Union that the Archdiocese had decided to ignore the Agreement: while the ACT government schools timetable for 2017 had been known for a long time, the Archdiocese unilaterally decided to organise the school year in a way that was not in line with ACT government schools.

The ACT government school term dates calendar is unambiguous: Term 2 starts on 26 April 2017. Yet the Archdiocese decided that it would start their ACT school term on 24 April, the Monday between the end of a weekend period and Anzac Day. Apart from representing a deliberate breach of the Agreement, it also placed Catholic school teachers, students and families out of sync with the rest of the community.

Following a series of meetings and exchanges of correspondence between the Archdiocese, the Catholic Commission for Employment Relations (CCER) and the Union, on 9 December 2016 the IEU made an application to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) for it to deal with the dispute. In early February a conciliation process was run under the auspices of the Fair Work Commission. This process failed to resolve the matter.

Essentially CCER argued that there is no role for the independent umpire (the Fair Work Commission) in settling any dispute unless the employer agrees to it undertaking such a role.

Following the conciliation process, the Archdiocese proposed an alternative arrangement that Term 4 would be reduced by one teaching day (at the end of Term 4) in exchange for members teaching on 24 April.

In late February, IEU chapters across the ACT considered their response. The overwhelming member response to the Archdiocese’s unilateralism was one of opposition. The strongly supported motion read:

“We are strongly opposed to teaching on 24 April and do not wish to negotiate alternate teaching days and request the Union pursue this issue before the Fair Work Commission.”

On 9 March the matter returned to the Fair Work Commission. At that hearing the CCER, representing the Archdiocese, indicated that it would challenge the power of the Fair Work Commission to arbitrate the dispute, unless it agreed to such arbitration.

The impact of the Archdiocese’s position is profound for all IEU members in systemic schools across NSW. Essentially CCER argued that there is no role for the independent umpire (the Fair Work Commission) in settling any dispute unless the employer agrees to it undertaking such a role. They assert that where they don’t want their decisions to be subject to independent scrutiny, they simply say no to arbitration – as they are attempting in this dispute.

The Union’s legal representatives have already indicated that we challenge their reading of the Agreement with respect to our rights as workers to access arbitration processes. At the time of writing, the Archdiocese and CCER continue to pursue this attack on our rights to seek redress via an independent umpire.

Arbitration – what is the church’s view?

The attack on our rights to arbitration by the Archdiocese through the agency of CCER is somewhat perplexing, given the longstanding support the Church has given to arbitral processes.

Since Pope Leo’s encyclical letter, Rerum Novarum (1891), the Australian Catholic Church has been an advocate for the right of workers to access arbitration. Shortly after Rerum Novarum was published, the then Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney (Cardinal Moran) publically advocated for a system of conciliation and arbitration.

More recently Pope John Paul II in 1986 was a clear advocate for the right to arbitration in Australia when he addressed a group of workers in Parramatta in 1986:

Pope Francis in February this year warned Catholics across the world about hypocrisy: ‘Itis a scandal to say one thing and do another. That is a double life’.

“Australia has a long and proud history of settling industrial disputes and promoting co-operation by its almost unique system of arbitration and conciliation. Over the years this system has helped to defend the rights of workers and promote their wellbeing, while at the same time taking into account the needs and the future of the whole community.”

(Source: paragraph 208 pp.94-95, Australian Catholic Council for Employment Relations (2007), Workplace Relations: A Catholic Perspective, ACCER).

Certainly in 2008 the CCER’s predecessor understood the imperative for all workers, including its own employees, to access arbitration. The Australian Catholic Council for Employment Relations, considered the deleterious impacts of WorkChoices:

“ACCER opposed the fundamental change in the AIRC’s role as the arbitrator of disputes which cannot be solved by negotiation and conciliation. It was in part based on its potential impact on the capacity of unions to operate effectively, but it was also based on concern about the ability of workers with little or no industrial bargaining power, whether they be unionist or not, to achieve a collective bargain.”

(Source: Paragraph 21, p9, Submission by the Australian Catholic Council for Employment Relations to an inquiry by the Senate Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations into the Fair Work Bill 2008, 9 January 2009).

More recently, Pope Francis has advocated for a range of dispute settling procedures, including arbitration, within the world of work and international affairs.


Eureka Vol 26 No 9, Pope Francis’ social activism has long roots, Bruce Duncan, 15 May 2016.

Where to from here?

At the time of writing, the Archdiocese and their representative CCER continue to ignore the plain meaning and intent of the enterprise agreement provisions.

Notwithstanding the Church’s own position on the matter, they also continue to argue that teachers across NSW and the ACT have no access to the independent umpire via arbitral mechanisms.

Pope Francis in February this year warned Catholics across the world about hypocrisy – “It is a scandal to say one thing and do another. That is a double life”. (The Guardian 24 February 2017) Perhaps the Archdiocese and CCER should heed the Pontiff’s words.

Michael Wright
Industrial Officer
UPDATE 20/03/2017
The Archdiocese has just agreed with the IEU’s position that the 24 April 2017 forms part of the school holidays in the ACT.
Two issues still remain in dispute – how to interpret the ACT school term provisions of the Agreement in future years and the general position of Catholic employers across NSW and the ACT as to right of our members to access arbitration.