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Public school teachers gather outside parliament amid first strike action in a decade

Thousands of public school teachers within the NSW Teachers Federation (TFed) walked off the job this morning and gathered at Hyde Park Fountain before marching to NSW Parliament on Macquarie Street to protest stagnating wages and excessive workloads. It is the first strike taken by teachers in the public sector since 2011 and comes alongside…

Image credit: NSW Teachers Federation

Thousands of public school teachers within the NSW Teachers Federation (TFed) walked off the job this morning and gathered at Hyde Park Fountain before marching to NSW Parliament on Macquarie Street to protest stagnating wages and excessive workloads. It is the first strike taken by teachers in the public sector since 2011 and comes alongside further strikes by both the Rail, Tram and Bus Union and the Transport Workers’ Union.

The TFed’s More Than Thanks campaign is demanding a pay rise of 5% a year, double the 2.5% annual wage growth cap which sparked the 2011 strikes, and an extra 2.5% for those with additional experience, alongside an extra two hours of planning and preparation time per week. The State Council voted on 27 November for a 24-hour strike and rally outside Parliament for direct members from Sydney to Wollongong; teachers in rural areas are set to gather in regional centres. The Department of Education (DoE) last week were successful in lobbying the Industrial Relations Committee (IRC) to cancel the strike, but the TFed defied the order and went ahead as planned. The DoE can lobby for the TFed to be fined for contravening an IRC order.

An independent inquiry commissioned by the Federation found that “[a]t the same time as these increases in work, complexity and responsibility, there has been a decline in the relative position of teacher salaries alongside that of other professions and a reduced attractiveness of public sector teaching as a career.” It officially recommended that wages be increased by 10-15 percent in the next wages agreement (2022 and 2023), preparation time be extended by at least two hours for public school teachers, increased staff be employed with more working at the same time and curriculums be rewritten and worked on by teachers; it also noted that “[t]he excessive use of temporary teacher employment should be addressed.”

Rob, a TFed organiser, performed a Welcome to Country before the rally marched from Hyde Park Foundation down Macquarie St towards Parliament. Members of the United Workers Union (UWU), Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), Nurses and Midwives’ Association, United Services Union (USU),  RTBU and Public Service Association of NSW (PSA) were also in attendance. 

Image credit: NSW Teachers Federation.

The rally was chaired by Henry Rajendra, Senior Vice President of the TFed, who stated that protesters were there both for the teachers and to protest the failures of the Perrottet Government, giving a shout out to the teachers gathering outside of Sydney. 

Another TFed Senior Vice President, Amber Flohm, read out statements of solidarity from a number of notable figures in education, including the AEU Federal Secretary Susan Hopgood, International Trade Union Confederation General Secretary Sharan Burrow and Division Secretary of NTEU NSW Dr Damien Cahill. Schools shouldn’t be built entirely on the good will of teachers, she said, condemning the debilitating workloads schools place on teachers which impact their health, relationships and family lives. 

“Enough for the profound contempt and disrespect for our profession. The time for our government to act is now,” she said.

“We need to get together and demand that our salaries and our working conditions will be professionally competitive to attract and maintain the best teachers in our profession,” said Alice Yeung, Head Teacher of Concord High School. Sydney’s Inner West is not traditionally difficult to staff but just this year alone she’s had 250 instances where classes had to be merged or were left with minimal supervision. She detailed how she has seen teachers unable to take temporary promotions because their positions couldn’t be backfilled and teachers scared to overburden their colleagues by taking leave. “How many weekends have we spent on school work instead of spending time with our families?” she asked. “How can we be the best system when the system refuses to pay teachers for what they’re worth?”

Elizabeth Scott, President of the Illawarra Teachers Association, described how lesson planning, which should be teachers’ primary responsibilities, has become overshadowed by meaningless data entry and paperwork that fails to improve student learning conditions. She explained that she could begin working at 6am and finish at 9pm, spending the whole day unsuccessfully trying to find casual teachers.This workload has worsened over her 30 year career yet the intensification of workload is not reflected in salaries. 

May Ptolemy, Leuna Public School Principal, condemned the NSW and Federal Governments’ treatments of principals. Principals, she claimed, have to deal with the consequences of children who can’t be properly educated, classes that must be merged or understaffed and teachers that work too much. “We can’t do our jobs with one hand tied behind our back.” 

Next was Grant Shephard, Principal of Willyama High School in Broken Hill who detailed how two thirds of his staff were early in their careers and between 25 and 35 years old. He described the difficulty of attracting teachers to northern NSW and other regional areas, with the shortage of staff and extensive searching for new teachers escalating in recent years. He couldn’t find a qualified music teacher until Term 3 this year and he couldn’t find an HSC English teacher in that same term meaning students had essentially no sufficient teaching before their HSC. The community recently needed an extra Special Education class for autistic students but there is no specialised teacher, or any teacher at all despite offering significant incentives. Specialist staff support for schools was stripped away as part of the failed 2012 Local Schools, Local Decisions reforms.

Secretary of Unions NSW Mark Morey spoke very briefly of how this was only the beginning of an industrial campaign across the state for better staff working conditions. Finally, TFed President Angelo Gavrielatos condemned Education Minister Sarah Mitchell’s hypocritical attacks on the Federation where she accused them of refusing to bargain and of a lack of transparency. These attacks came despite the Minister’s own Department’s recently leaked secret documents which describe how the state will likely run out of teachers for the profession in as soon as 5 years. “No matter how many times they launch gratuitous attacks against us, we will not be silent,” he affirmed. “It’s high time that instead of taking action, legal action [sic] to intimidate us, they took action against the teacher shortage.

A small contingent of anti-vax protestors on the Martin Place side of the street attempted to disrupt the rally but weren’t permitted entry by police and went largely unnoticed by the crowd and entirely unacknowledged by speakers.

The rally ended with a loud chorus of “More Than Thanks”.

The strike comes at an opportune time for industrial action in NSW, with notable actions also occurring through the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) and Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU). A 24- hour action by approximately 1200 drivers on Monday shut down more than 60 routes in the Inner West and today more than 300 drivers in region three (South-West Sydney, Smithfield and West Hoxton depots) will also down tools for 24 hours. Privatisation of bus routes has created a two-tiered pay system, according to the TWU, and the union is demanding pay parity for its striking workers. 

The RTBU is issuing an additional 24- hour ban on commercially operated rolling stock across NSW; this includes A sets, B sets, Oscars and Mills. The union predicts this will halt 75% of rail services across the state over the period of a day and plans to repeat it on December 14th. Bargaining has taken 6 months and the government so far has only offered a 0.3% pay rise for workers in the new deal’s first year and 2.5% thereafter; the union wants a 3.5% pay rise effective immediately.

More information on the “More Than Thanks” campaign can be found at https://www.morethanthanks.com.au/.