Max Taylor: Of coats and spies

Who would have imagined the role a humble jacket would play in Federation history? Speaking as part of the Unity! Strength! Justice! exhibition, former General Secretary and President Max Taylor spoke of the jacket’s vital role in the heady days of Federation militancy of the ’70s and ’80s.

It was first worn by Max at his wedding reception and got its second airing when he needed to find a jacket to wear for an Industrial Relations Commission hearing during the TAFE travelling-time compensation case in 1972.

“It hung in the Teachers Federation building after that,” Max told the audience, “other people who’d forgotten to bring one or were sent down to the Industrial Relations Commission in an emergency used it.

“It became the Federation coat, and it hung in the cupboard of the General Secretary’s office for years and years and years, serving a useful purpose.”

In speaking on “Youthful Militancy and the Politics of education”, Max recalled the 1970s, when the level of militancy by the members of Federation almost threatened its registration as an industrial union.

By the mid-1970s the economic scene had become more difficult and remained so through to the early 1980s. Nevertheless, militant action continued throughout the period, aimed at either making gains or defending the existing conditions in public education.

He listed the almost relentless actions by Federation including the 26 strikes by schools over local issues in 1971/72, the militant action that brought down class sizes, the Warilla High School strike that shut down Port Kembla, the TAFE 18/12 campaign, relief time for infants teachers, to the Dover Heights Boys High victory.

Looking back on his time as General Secretary from April 1975 to 1979 and President from 1982 to 1983, he said youth culture and social awareness was strong – in 1974, 46 per cent of the population was under 25 years of age.

“Many of these people took advantage of new educational opportunities and entered teaching,” he said. “The neoliberal blunt-instrument approach of destroying public services was preceded in the 1970s by relentless attempts at budget cuts, both federal and state.

“After 1972, the global economic situation, including rising unemployment and inflation worsened. Unemployment was over 10 per cent in 1983, and inflation reached a high point of 17 per cent in the mid-70s.

“The mood of the time was also contributed to by international controversies. Mass demonstrations over the Vietnam War, bans on services for the visiting South African rugby union team, bans to the services of French nuclear testing, a major ACTU debate over uranium and the Green Bans set a wonderful example as the builders labourers and members of the community fought against natural settings and important buildings being consumed in the name of profit.”

He said Australia’s spy networks took a great interest in the activities of Federation at the time. “None of you were considered boring, you were all persons of interest,” he told the audience. “The NSW Police Special Branch also took an interest. I found my file — you were able to get them in the ’90s and my own runs for a continuous 16 years, ranging over everything from moratorium activity through my TAFE teaching at the Police Academy.

“They wrote things about that and [the file ends] with the demonstration I organised when — as a law student, when I went back to do law — I found out that fine defaulters, the poorest people in the community, were being locked up in maximum security at Long Bay. I organised, as a student, with a number of lecturers to hold a press conference and demonstration at Long Bay gaol about the fine defaulters.”

Federation has always included a wide range of political views and the Teachers Club welcomed all comers of all political persuasions.

“Left-wing politics was a powerful force, I witnessed many debates, some heated, between those who supported various views on Marx, the post-war Keynesian miracle and every form of progressive thinking from the Fabians to Trotsky,” Max said.

“They were great days at the Teachers Club. It was also true that a large section of membership were conservative or centrist but still loyal to the union. An organisation being Left wing didn’t change the fact that woman always had to struggle to be heard.”

Of the present, Max referred to figures from Oxfam that show 1 per cent of Australians continue to own more wealth than the bottom 70 combined. The bottom 10 per cent own 0.2 per cent.

“Does Australian need a flourishing public school system? I think so,” Max exhorted.

“Does it need to end the public funding of the richest private schools … Yes. Let’s be clear about this, the share of national income paid to Australian workers reached its peak in 1975 at 58 per cent, it’s now 48 per cent.”