Striking Whilst the Iron’s Cold and Angry – Why the NSW Teachers Federation Need to Change their Approach

I used to be a teacher in the NSW Department of School Education once upon a time. I started my career there. Teaching casual and temporary blocks. I waited three years for a permanent placement somewhere in the Western Suburbs. Exasperated, I opened up my availability to teach to anywhere in the state. Christmas Eve, 1998 they offered me Canowindra. By then, however, it was too late – I chose security of a position I could apply for and have an interview for over waiting by the phone.  Even now, it has been next to impossible for me to return, due to administrative nightmares.

In my time in the state system, it occurred to me that the NSW Teachers’ Federation were a stern, strident lot who went on strike quite often, especially in my first year of teaching in 1996. I was told that as a casual, “I couldn’t come in on a strike day” by a Deputy Principal. So I didn’t – even though at that stage I hadn’t bothered to join as yet. That’s because no-one asked me, no-one mentioned how to join.

Tomorrow, the NSW TF are going back to that mode they know well – to strike. To cause disruption to parents and shopping precincts to make their point. This time, as with other times, it a worthy point to make. The O’Farrell Government, completely without mandate or having mentioned this in their election campaign, have ensured that any pay claims made above 2.5% per annum by any public sector workers (other than the police) have to be accompanied with “economies” – which, in terms of schools, is usually government speak for less sick days, bigger class sizes and less release times for teachers. As a result, teachers’ pay rises will be less than CPI increases. O’Farrell has also circumvented the NSW Industrial Relations Commission by making sure parliament is the final arbiter of the pay claims, not the IRC.

The problem with the strike, however, is in the timing.  This strike is about the legislation and the strictures it places on all public sector workers, not just teachers. That is why nurses and members of the fire brigade will be joining them for a rally.  That makes this strike, however, a difficult sell for the people the NSWTF are trying to get onside – the general public.  That’s because the legislation was passed some time ago, with the Greens and ALP attempting to hold up its passing with epic speeches made by David Shoebridge and John Kaye, amongst others.  It was introduced with such breathtaking speed that the NSWTF were caught unawares to an extent, unable to call for a strike at the time.  However, it is when they should have called the strike. Now, it’s old news.

The strike is also a mistake because it isn’t tied to an actual pay claim. That is why Adrian Piccoli, the Education Minister, can say to the public that the strike isn’t actually linked to a specific pay claim, it’s just a partisan political activity that would have no bearing on the quality of education in schools. That makes it easy for the opponents of unions in News Limited, amongst others to characterise teachers as politically partisan people who just like disrupting the lives of parents for political motives and a chance for a rally with their unionist mates. Not a good look for the union movement.

What has also happened on this occasion is that the NSW IRC, in performing their job as independent arbiter, have been forced to do their correct role and deemed that the strike is illegal and told the NSW TF to call it off. The TF have replied that they will defy and ignore the IRC and go on strike anyway. What this in effect has done is shown that the TF are quite happy to defy and ignore the same IRC that they want to maintain as an independent umpire. It’s a contradiction that is hard for them to justify.

What would have worked better for the NSWTF is to put in a pay claim – say 5%, like the NSW IEU has put forward. Then they could wait to see what “trade offs” the NSW Government would insist upon in response – such as increased class sizes, decreased sick leave or decreased release time. Then they could have gone on strike, showing what kind of unreasonable demands the NSW Government has placed on them, showing how unfair it is that the government has circumvented the IRC.  They would tangible proof of the negative impact the unreasonable demands would have on students in schools. Then it would be easier to garner public support, which could then put pressure on O’Farrell to at least make compromises. By going ahead with tomorrow’s strike, though, the TF will probably have to put on two strikes, which will test the patience of a lot of the community they are trying to recruit as supporters of the cause.

The NSW TF really need to think of something other than strikes to get their point across. They may have worked somewhere in the past, but now they are a blunt instrument that feeds their enemies.

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