Teachers in New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia have conducted 24-hour work stoppages and nationwide protests as part of the Australian Education Union’s (AEU) efforts to make education a top-level national priority. The historic action last week by teachers in defense of Australia’s public schools was a resounding success. An estimated 100,000 teachers took part in the coordinated strike.

The recent job actions by Australian teachers’ unions have been undertaken in defense of the public education system. The teachers targeted state Labor Party governments, which they accused of colluding to keep wages down in the face of a national teacher shortage.

In New South Wales (NSW), indications are that support for the stoppage was the highest ever, with many schools reporting 100 percent of teachers out. More than 20,000 NSW public school and Technical and Further Education (TAFE) teachers converged on Parliament House to condemn the state government’s “despicable” pay offer and to deliver thousands of letters demanding salary increases.

Chanting, “We are here, we are strong, your 3 percent is just plain wrong,” the teachers marched from Hyde Park. The teachers have launched a case for a 25 percent wage increase. Higher wages are necessary to attract new teachers and retain the present workforce, they said.

Maree O’Halloran, president of the NSW Teachers’ Federation, said if they failed to win their case, or if a significant pay raise was funded by making cuts elsewhere in the education budget, teachers were ready and willing to stage further strikes next year.

“If there’s not the outcome that public education needs, then action is more than likely from the beginning of the 2004 school year,” O’Halloran told reporters.

In Victoria, at the same time as the action in NSW, 10,000 teachers and support staff filled the Vodafone Arena in Melbourne. They vowed to continue their campaign for wage justice and quality education services. They voted unanimously in support of a resolution demanding that state and territory Labor governments honor their electoral commitments to make public education a “number one priority.”

Mary Bluett, president of the AEU in Victoria, told the mass meeting of teachers that the dispute had an historical significance. Bluett said it was the first time that teachers had engaged in a national strike. She said it was also the first time that primary and secondary teachers, pre-school teachers, support staff and principals had united in a campaign to defend the future and quality of public education. The meeting condemned state and territory treasurers for agreeing to cap public sector salary increases to inflation.

The Victorian Government offer of a 2.25 percent wage increase with an additional 0.75 productivity payment was “an insult,” AEU Victorian Branch Secretary Ann Taylor told the meeting.

In West Australia (WA), public school teachers held a half-day stoppage, vowing to escalate industrial action in their pursuit of a 30 percent pay claim. About 7,000 teachers attended a stop-work meeting at Subiaco Oval. West Australian teachers are seeking a 30 percent pay raise over three years, while the government has offered raises of up to 14.3 percent over two-and-a-half years.

Their meeting endorsed an ongoing campaign of rolling work stoppages, including a possible statewide strike in the fourth term, which begins next month, and a rally at Parliament House on Sept. 24. AEU National and WA President Pat Byrne said teachers would also escalate their political campaign, targeting all sitting members of State Parliament.

Byrne said about 70 percent of WA teachers had walked off the job, and she hoped their actions had sent a clear message to the state government.

This article was reprinted from The Guardian,
the weekly newspaper of the Communist Party of Australia.