During its 2023 state election campaign, New South Wales (NSW) Labor committed to abolishing the state’s wage cap, which has depressed the pay packets of public sector employees such as public-school teachers, nurses, and transport workers since 2011. After ousting the Liberal-National Coalition government, NSW Labor built on the goodwill it had generated among teachers by immediately commencing negotiations with the NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF) over a new agreement.
By May 31 this year, the union and NSW government had all but signed off on a suite of improvements for teachers and, by implication, students. These included reforms to how casual, temporary, and permanent teachers are paid as well as an increase to paid time out of class, to allow teachers to complete planning, programming, assessments, reporting, and other important work. The new enterprise agreement would also have scrapped the wage cap by granting a pay raise, which, for salaried teachers, would have amounted to between 8 and 12 percent, depending on position and years of experience. Teachers in NSW seemed set to win an above-inflation salary increase, making them the highest-paid teachers in the country.
On June 22, the NSW Department of Education reaffirmed the agreement, which was set to commence from October 9 this year, and last for twelve months. Then, on July 28, in a sudden and unexpected backflip, the NSW Labor government vacated negotiations with the NSWTF and rescinded its proposed agreement. The government’s new offer is a betrayal and it amounts to austerity.
A Worse Pay Offer Than the Liberals
NSW Labor has proposed a new four-year enterprise agreement that adds up to a pay cut for teachers. Under it, teachers would receive an 8 percent pay rise in the first year, followed by 2.5 percent for the following three years. In real terms, it’s worse than the Coalition’s wage cap of 3.5 percent, the very wage cap that Labor promised to abolish during its election campaign. And given the cost-of-living crisis, Labor’s proposal is essentially a pay cut.
In addition to imposing further austerity on teachers, NSW premier Chris Minns’s proposal will worsen NSW’s existing shortage of teachers. Indeed, Minns himself criticized his predecessor’s pay cap on exactly the same grounds. In a preelection speech to the NSWTF published on the Labor premier’s website, Minns acknowledged uncompetitive pay, job insecurity, and unsustainable workloads as major contributing factors to the teacher shortage:
Nothing shows the Government’s lack of respect for teachers — and public servants generally — [more] than its salary cap. . . . The salaries should reflect the value and importance of the work teachers do, you do, and the skills and expertise that you’ve accumulated.
“As OECD research shows, teachers’ salaries also have a direct impact on the attractiveness of the profession,” Minns explained before the election, noting that “without a better wage fixing system, teachers will leave.” Now in government, his backflip could not be starker.
As a teacher of more than a decade of experience, I can only describe the NSW Labor government’s act as an egregious betrayal. My colleagues and I feel as though we have been tricked by a pack of Labor hacks who pretended to care about public education for five minutes so they could win an election.
NSW Labor’s backflip is also a political self-own for the ages. In one fell swoop, Minns has torn to shreds the credibility and goodwill that he had created among teachers. Indeed, the Labor government’s proposed agreement conflicts sharply with the message that it has tried to send to teachers since entering government. Both the premier Chris Minns and deputy premier and education minister Prue Car have appeared at union events and sent emails to the entire teaching workforce to broadcast how seriously they take the teacher shortage, and to provide updates on how they are working to increase teacher pay and reduce excessive workloads.
In response to criticism from teachers and their union, Car has taken to Twitter to imply that a lack of productivity by teachers was to blame for her government’s decision to tear up the previous negotiated agreement. As Car wrote,
Productivity improvements need to be identified and agreed, and we know that teachers have ideas about how to do this while enhancing learning outcomes for students in the classroom. I am committed to this process and serious about improving teachers’ pay and conditions.
Teachers are among the hardest workers in the state. A study by the University of Sydney revealed that teachers are working an average of fifty-five hours a week, well beyond the maximum thirty-eight hours covered by their salaries. Despite this, in a 2021 parliamentary inquiry, the NSW Department of Education admitted that it did not know how many hours per week its teachers worked. Given that the Labor government hasn’t yet resolved this gap in the department’s knowledge, Deputy Premier Car’s invocation of productivity gains is a spectacular misfire and an insult to teachers’ intelligence.
In reality, public-school teachers work fifty to eighty hours a week, and sometimes more if they’re on a multiday excursion. But since working hours are not stipulated in the award, teachers are effectively paid for a presumed maximum of thirty-eight hours per week, and nothing for overtime beyond that. The Minns Labor government would do well to learn that the only thing holding public education together for students are undervalued teachers who continue to have their good will exploited for unpaid overtime.
Labor’s backflip also reveals the party’s con-artistry. In the lead up to the 2023 election, Labor won support from the NSWTF, which helped secure the election of MPs in marginal seats. In return, Labor promised the union immediate good-faith negotiations to improve working conditions and address staff shortages.
The NSWTF carried out its share of the agreement, with union members campaigning about Labor’s promises to abolish the wage cap, improve pay, and reduce workloads. It took Labor less than five months to break its word. The impact will flow on to the rest of the country, as Labor state governments take a lead from NSW.
In response, the NSWTF — the biggest public-school teachers’ union in Australia — is organizing to put the NSW Labor government on notice. Commencing immediately, teachers will walk off the job whenever a government official or MP enters school grounds. And the union has given the government until the end of the month to reverse its backflip. Failure to honor the original agreement will result in escalating industrial action, potentially including strikes.
Public schools across Australia’s largest state remain understaffed and underfunded, and thanks to the continuing decline in staff numbers, the situation is set to worsen. In light of this and its campaign promises, the new Labor government’s betrayal is an act of cowardice that belies their claim to be any better than the conservatives they ousted. Now, the clock is ticking. Unless NSW Labor honors its agreement, the state’s public-school teachers will take action that will ultimately diminish any credibility the party has left.