Farewell to a firebrand

It is somewhat fitting that Federation General Secretary John Dixon’s initiation as a fighting force in Federation ranks early in his teaching career was heralded by an almighty boom.

It was just after the school day on 4 August, 1986, at Pittwater High School, when “a rumble and a mighty crash” — as those present remember it — marked the collapse of the school’s “Bini dome”, a futuristic bubble structure that housed its hall and gymnasium.

Just half an hour earlier, students were taking band practice in the dome; a building fad devised by Italian architect Dante Bini and adopted by the state government of the time for schools and other public facilities. A cleaner was lucky to escape the collapse.

The implosion enveloped the school grounds in a white cloud of dust and it was confirmed the fallen structure was riddled with asbestos.

A colleague at Pittwater High at the time, and now Federation custodian, Margaret Vos, recalled that staff turned up the next day to be told the site was safe and the clean-up would proceed without disruption to the usual school routine.

“Not on!” recalled Ms Vos. “Before the dust had settled, literally, a young Federation Representative, one John Dixon, started a campaign to change the Department of Education’s mind about how safe the school was!”

John Dixon, with Organiser and mentor John Hennessy, called a stop-work meeting, where a packed common room voted, despite considerable pressure from the Department of Education, to refuse to work at the school until it was a safe environment for teachers and their students.

“This collective action led to a great win,” Ms Vos said. “The school was closed, the teachers taught at other local schools while the remains of the Bini dome were removed. When the rubble was cleared it was done by workers wearing protective masks and clothing!”

But it was not John’s first taste of activism. He had started teaching as a reserve in 1979 at Mackellar Girls High, a strong Federation school where he taught alongside union activists Denis Fitzgerald, Jennifer Leete and Blair Gilmore.

As if to set the course of things to come, he became the centre of a major industrial case when, after his first year of service, he refused a forced transfer, was stood down and charged under the Teaching Services Act for failing to comply with a lawful direction.

On the advice of John Hennessy and others, he took the transfer and avoided dismissal, but learned the importance of conviction and strategic action.

He was first elected to Federation Council in 1980 to represent Manly-Warringah Teachers Association.

In 1985, John was a Relief Officer working with casual, unemployed and student teachers before he was elected Casual/Unemployed, Trainee Teachers’ Co-ordinator from 1987 until 1992.

He wrote the first Casual Teachers Handbook and over the past 30 years has left an indelible mark on improved conditions for casual, part-time and temporary teachers.

John became Membership Officer in 1992 at a time when the loss of the “preference for unionists” clause for teacher employment meant that recruitment was to become a crucial issue for Federation.

He concentrated on building Federation’s presence within the ranks of graduate and new teachers, and was influential in the creation of internships in teacher training, mandatory unionrun seminars for graduates, the revamping of recruitment material and the production of five editions of the Graduate Survival Kit.

In 1995, John was elected to the dual role of Membership Officer and City Organiser, first for the Inner West and then Manly-Warringah teachers association. This dual role was pivotal for John, who recognised that the systems of the union had to be centred around organising and campaigning, and had to be member focused.

But it is, perhaps, John’s constant foresight and vision that will most remembered, never more so than leading Federation’s march into the digital era. As a recipient of the Eric Pearson Study Grant, he investigated the use of the internet as a campaigning tool.

In what started as a side project in 1999 with Wayne Patterson, they established an alternate Federation website that was campaign based. As selftaught web gurus John and Wayne knew they had made it big when the union’s unofficial website was tendered in evidence in the Industrial Relations Commission during a salaries case.

In 2004, John was elected Assistant General Secretary (Communication and Administration). In this role he continued to revolutionise the union’s technology, taking Federation to the cutting edge, particularly in relation to the membership system and intranet.

But it is achievements since his appointment as General Secretary in 2014, that have established the NSW Teachers Federation as the pre-eminent union in the state and raised every benchmark for its future operations.

In Federation’s 2020 Annual Report, John wrote that his “constant focus as General Secretary since 2014 had been to return our union to a position of financial sustainability and campaigning strength.

Previously, a series of underlying structural deficits developed that, over the long term, represented a great strategic risk to the union,” he stated. Collectively, we have been able to slowly and carefully make prudent and measured expenditure and income decisions that have put this union in a much stronger financial position now and into the future.”

Fittingly, John chose today, May Day, as his last working day ahead of retirement.

On May Days to come, let us remember John Dixon as we remember those who went before us and stood up to fight for the rights of teachers, workers and humanity as a whole.