Teacher Resistance Comes to Australia

Teachers in New South Wales, Australia are taking inspiration from their counterparts in the United States and adopting a militant posture in defense of their livelihoods and students.

The skyline and harbor of Sydney is seen from a viewing platform at the Sydney Tower Eye, on December 16, 2011 in Sydney, Australia. Eugene Tan / Hausmann Communications via Getty

After a decade of attacks, public schools in Australia are looking battered and bruised. A Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), which seeks to subject public schools to the logic of the market, is taking root worldwide, and Australia is no exception.

In Australia, as elsewhere, schools are in crisis. They have become subject to questionable metrics for assessing “performance” in order to secure funding. Demands for productivity increases have seen teachers’ workloads skyrocket, as hours are now wasted on data collection and bureaucratic reporting. The spread in temporary contracts is undermining job security. As well as teachers’ work conditions, the quality of education and school facilities is deteriorating.

This is the context that the New South Wales’ Teachers Federation (NSWTF) — representing around 60,000 teachers, one of the largest education unions in the world — finds itself in during its bargaining period, negotiating terms for their industrial award and staffing agreement. As NSWTF weigh their contract negotiation strategies, we should look to the example set by teachers in the United States, who have repeatedly shown — most recently with another successful strike by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) last month — that teachers are strategically placed to lead their communities in a fight against austerity and the commercialization of public services.

The CTU has demonstrated that if teachers stand firm in their demands — not just for pay raises, but for demands that benefit the entire working class — and are willing to engage in industrial action, up to and including strikes, they can push back against neoliberal attacks.

We Deserve Better Schools

Thanks to a long history of government largesse towards rich private schools, Australia has one of the most unequal education systems in the developed world. The situation declined further when former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull tore up a funding agreement with Australia’s state and territory governments, slashing $1.9 billion from public schools. His successor, Scott Morrison, went even further, showering the private education sector with an extra $4.6 billion.

This inequality is felt daily by teachers and students. The students most affected are from poor or marginalized backgrounds. Many public school buildings are in urgent need of maintenance and upgrades to keep pace with rising enrolments. While public school students and staff swelter in extremely hot classrooms throughout the Australian summer, with promised air-conditioners yet to be installed, private schools are guaranteed nothing but the finest, drawing upon a $1.9 billion fund set aside for capital works.

Like the recent strike in Chicago, teachers in Australia must fight not just for a pay rise, but against social disadvantage more broadly. This means standing up for students, parents, and support staff.

Chicago teachers blazed a trail a decade ago, organizing together to stop school closures. Their eleven-day strike last month ended with a tentative agreement that saw several of their non-compensation demands met, including class-size reductions, the eventual introduction of a nurse and social worker for every school, plus extra help for immigrant and homeless students. Not all their demands were met, but the ambition of their program is important. Their walkout moved beyond established bread-and-butter union issues, and raised demands like affordable housing for students and teachers.

When the city claimed there was no money to meet the teachers’ demands, the CTU pointed the finger at the luxury property developers receiving extravagant public handouts. Likewise, when Australian teachers are asked where the money will come from, we need only point out that while many public schools rely on portable, demountable classrooms, private schools enjoy ample public funds for meditation spaces, boathouse refurbishments, and auditoriums with adjustable orchestra pits.

Standing United Against Divide-and-Rule Tactics

In NSW, there are two pressing threats to teacher solidarity that must be reckoned with. First, pay anomalies have been inflicted upon thousands of younger teachers, threatening to pit them against their colleagues. Emerging from a transition to a new pay scale in 2016, these anomalies mean that some teachers employed in 2014 or 2015 are paid lower salaries than those employed after January 1, 2016. The potential for division here is self-evident.

The second threat is the continued expansion of casualization, a phenomenon buried under the bureaucratic jargon of “Temporary Teacher Engagements.” Many teachers are now effectively employed on temporary contracts, for a period that can range from four weeks to three years. Worse still, a 2018 review raises proposals that will result in a further increase to the number of temporary teachers in NSW schools.

Casualized teaching often amounts to heightened exploitation, which simultaneously works to undermine solidarity. Temporary teachers understandably resent the amount of work they are forced to do, and under such fragmented conditions, it is extremely difficult to assert workplace rights. The spread of casualization, of course, also harms students by removing their most reliable source of academic and social support: namely, permanently employed teachers.

Resolving unfair pay anomalies and halting the spread of casualization are crucial to building union power among younger and precariously employed teachers. These measures can ward off bitterness, promoting trust and confidence between colleagues and with the union. A generation of teachers could be recruited as fighters for public education.

Time for Teaching

We are fortunate that the American trends towards closing public schools, expanding charter schools, and introducing performance-based pay — usually tied to standardized test results — have not yet hit NSW. However, since 2012, teachers have been increasingly under the pump to collect and analyze evidence related to their work activities and student progress, which is often measured by mass testing.

Forced compliance with these bureaucratic measures is a hallmark of the “growth” — focused, private sector logic of the GERM model. In addition to being a precursor to the full-blown attacks common in the United STates, this helps create an unmanageable workload for teachers, which in turn takes time away from teaching students.

Teachers also lack meaningful professional autonomy. We are forced to spend ever-increasing hours on “tick-a-box” administrative work, which most teachers feel impinges on the quality of teaching and learning. This is a manifestation of “continuous improvement” ideology, which comes from corporate management playbook by government bureaucrats. This teacher exploitation is concealed in the jargon of “effect size,” “PLAN2,” “outcomes,” “expected growth,” “Schools Excellence Framework,” “registration,” “live document,” and “external review.”

Now a new state government policy has been announced which explicitly calls for year-on-year “improvements” which will set “stretch targets” based on NAPLAN, a standardized test that has been criticized by education experts. A system obsessed with corporate-style accountability and “compliance” is bound to result in meaningless data-collection practices of little to no educational value.

In the same year that the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike inaugurated a new era of teacher unionism, the “Local Schools, Local Decisions” (LSLD) policy subjected NSW schools to atomization. This policy significantly devolved responsibilities for budgeting and management onto individual schools and their principals. LSLD is the NSW equivalent of the US charter school model: it works teachers harder than ever before, undermining our union and staff solidarity by creating a competitive culture over funding and promotions.

It’s a policy that lumbers teachers with the blame for systematic under-resourcing. For example, funds for resources and specialist staff for students with disabilities are partially contingent on teachers’ ability to produce voluminous documentation on how we are supporting these students.

All of this means that our work-life balance is collapsing. Teachers in NSW work an average of fifty-five hours per week. This leaves little time to plan for or even think about teaching. A study commissioned by the NSWTF found that over 60 percent of teachers report unacceptable levels of occupational stress.

One teacher reported working over eighty hours per week during term, and fifty during “holidays,” noting that this “left me physically exhausted and mentally drained”; a “total burn out.” Another teacher described the workload as “simply not possible to sustain … If I do my job to the standard required, my family suffer[s], if I focus more on my family life, I fall behind in my employment requirements … Every other week, term, year the job description just gets added to time and time again.”

Fight on All Fronts

How do we combat this culture of overwork? A “Time for Teaching” campaign could begin to challenge ubiquitous measurement and monitoring. This has the potential to build wide solidarity, both between teachers and with the community, because workload increases detract from lesson preparation time and teaching quality. We should call for the abolition of LSLD and demand the creation of permanent jobs as a way to take back control of the curriculum and our work hours, so we can devote more time to teaching and lesson preparation.

In communications to its members, the NSWTF has indicated that it has the right priorities. It is committed to resolving the pay anomalies and has promised to fight for permanent jobs in order to both achieve reductions in face-to-face teaching hours and improve working conditions. Yet, the problems facing teachers are not discrete issues but components of a neoliberal whole that must be fought as part of a single campaign.

Without a comprehensive campaign, advances on one front may mean losses on another. An increase in permanent staffing, for example, does not necessarily amount to more time for lesson preparation. Employers can always counter by demanding increased “productivity” or by setting new performance targets.

It’s for this reason that we must follow the CTU by demanding clearly defined guarantees embedded in legally enforceable industrial agreements, especially around workload and working conditions.

Under no circumstances should we accept a continuation of the unfair pay anomalies. This risks seriously undermining solidarity within our union and the success of this and future campaigns. Just as West Virginia teachers fought alongside school service staff in 2018, any attempt to divide staff must be unequivocally resisted.

Mass Action Led by Teachers

In Arizona, teachers wore red on certain days, as a gauge of strike preparedness and to build organisation. NSW teachers have committed to our own day of action modeled on the “Red for Ed” movement, to take place in late November. Serious energy and resources should be directed to maximizing participation and visibility across the state.

In Arizona, it was on-the-ground classroom teachers took the reins, with the support of their union leadership. In West Virginia, it was rank-and-file teachers who sparked the 2018–9 strike wave. In both cases, as in NSW, social media has proved a critical organizing tool.

Australia has some incredibly restrictive anti-strike laws, but we must not let this deter us. In places like West Virginia, teacher strikes are unlawful but last year teachers defied those bans in an incredible wave of wildcat actions, and showed that “there is no illegal strike, just an unsuccessful one.”

What’s more, strike is the only viable strategy we have. Waiting for a new Labor government to reform these laws is a pipe dream — especially given that Labor, since at least Bob Hawke and most recently, under Gillard, has defended and entrenched strike bans.

Solidarity with support staff is also vital. In NSW, these workers are represented by a different union, the Public Service Association (PSA). But this needn’t divide us; the Chicago strike was a joint effort by the CTU and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73. The CTU’s solidarity was returned in kind, with the SEIU voting unanimously to stay out on strike, despite having negotiated their own tentative agreement earlier on.

The PSA are our natural allies; we should explore the possibility of formulating common demands and engaging in joint action with them. It was a strategic oversight that earlier this year, we lost an opportunity to coordinate industrial bargaining with the PSA (their award was settled in September 2019). Still, this does not foreclose all possibilities for united campaigning and activism.

A further key ingredient behind the success of the American teachers’ strikes was solid community support. By emphasizing the connection between workplace conditions and the needs of students, teachers built practical solidarity. For example, in West Virginia, teachers packed lunches for students who depended on free school meals, as well as fighting for a 5 percent pay increase for all public employees.

Regardless of the outcome of the present negotiations, Australian teachers must lead the community in resisting the corporate interests suffocating our schools. In this, we have no better guides than our comrades in the United States. They have taught us the key issues and shown us what strategies work in fighting for our public schools. Now it’s up to us.