History Lesson: Local efforts at the core of union successes

Federation has long-standing staffing-related policies that seek to benefit students and teachers: a statewide staffing system built upon transfers, class sizes, permanency and the promotions system. But staffing improvements in these areas have only been achieved because of the contribution of teachers’ local activities.

The importance of member participation in lobbying activities has been communicated to members throughout the first 100 years of the union and will continue to be a core message in the future, because the level of commitment by individuals and workplace branches can have a huge bearing on the outcome of a campaign.

Significant achievements are possible when workplaces build a local campaign highlighting the needs of the students they teach.

Longest single teachers strike in Australia

In 1976, Warilla High School teachers went on strike for 28 days and consequently brought about differential staffing for disadvantaged schools across the whole state.

The basis of the dispute was that the Department had moved a trained reserve science teacher from Warilla High to teach music at Berkeley High. Back in the mid-1970s, Warilla High School was a school of more than 1200 students and 75 teaching staff. It drew its students from a very socio-economically disadvantaged area with more than 30 per cent of students coming from a non-English speaking home.

The teachers were outraged by the transfer occurring without the teacher being replaced. They carried a motion that they would take indefinite industrial action until the transfer was cancelled or the science teacher was replaced.

All of the teaching staff took action except for the principal, deputy principal and two teachers who were not members of the union. Led by school-based activists, they met every morning outside the school fence and voted on whether the dispute continued for another day. They would then disperse and go and speak to other schools to garner support and funds to sustain the strikers.

The Industrial Commission ordered the Warilla staff back to work but the strike continued regardless.

Federation Executive endorsed the union’s legal team to stage a walkout of the Commission, which kept the pressure on the government.

The main street of Wollongong closed for a student strike in support of the campaign.

The maritime workers’ union (then the Seamen’s Union) closed the Port of Wollongong — 15 ships were tied up off Port Kembla by tug boat crews. Merv Nixon, the legendary President of the South Coast Labour Council, famously took the regional director to his window overlooking the harbour and told him the harbour would not re-open until the Warilla staff’s demands were met.

In the end, the Department of Education and the Public Service Board (then technically the employer) yielded. The school got an additional science teacher and additional mathematics teacher. But, most importantly the principle of differential staffing of disadvantaged schools was to be applied statewide.

The staff who remained on strike for the full 28 days (supported by welfare funds and donations from other schools and Teachers Associations from around the state as well as donations from the local community) met once again at the front gate of the school and as a group voted to return to work. They marched back into school as a unified group victorious and unbowed.

While industrial laws are far more restrictive and oppressive today, the Warilla dispute demonstrates the importance of links with other unions, peak bodies and the broader community.

Workplace-level action vital

“We strongly feel that this campaign will be won or lost at the local level,” members read in Education (31 August, 1992) during the campaign to defend permanency in teacher employment and the statewide transfer system from attempts by governments to introduce local selection for all positions and limited-tenure contract employment for principals in the early 1990s. “For the moment it’s over to you … Jot a brief letter to your local MP and tell them you oppose the staffing changes. Get your school to make a submission on ‘Your Schools Right to Choose’ [a deregulation blueprint]. And do make sure that you speak to parents.”

When an agreement on staffing was made in mid-1993 President Phil Cross wrote: “It has been the actions by you, the membership of Federation, over a sustained period which has given Federation officers our negotiating strength.” (Education, 7 June, 1993)

The willingness of teachers at Lawrence Hargrave, Niland and Halinda schools for specific purposes (SSP) to take industrial action in separate campaigns achieved increased staffing levels at their schools and three other SSPs. But it also contributed to improved staffing levels in all SSPs, classes in support units and support classes.

When the Department proposed in 2008 to dismantle the statewide staffing system, locally based actions strengthened Federation’s campaign to oppose the changes, which history shows was achieved. As the Director-General left Wiley Park Girls High School, teachers lined the path to the front gate and handed him a petition. (Education, 7 April, 2008).

In the context of the wider campaign, when the Department blocked transfers, members working with the effected teacher got behind their colleague. For example, more than 600 teachers in St Marys-Mt Druitt Teachers Association stopped work and rallied outside Chifley College (Mt Druitt campus). Teachers in city and regional areas took school-based strike action in support of colleagues and students in distant, harder to staff areas during the 2008 staffing dispute, to ensure that all public school students, wherever they live, are taught by qualified teachers.

— John Dixon, General Secretary