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Out of Many, One

More than ever before, today’s AEU ACT is an organisation dedicated to excellent, professional education delivery – and to creating the conditions needed to achieve that. It represents education practitioners at all levels of schooling and TAFE, support staff and school leaders, temporary and probationary teachers, part-time staff; teachers who move between worksites, and educators based in the Education Support Office.

But how can any industrial organisation do all these things well?

And what happens when some groups believe they might achieve a better outcome by representing their own interests separately? Or when political and other interests seek to undermine the professional and common interests of a united workforce?   

Representation and structures

From the beginning, factionalism was discouraged in the AEU ACT (as was ‘special pleading’ by special interest groups),  with all members encouraged to take an interest in the needs of the system and in the needs and rights of other members. For most members, this begins with participation in meetings of the AEU ACT sub-branch in their own workplace.

Direction-setting from the workplace

To set directions and to achieve outcomes for its members, the AEU ACT relies on the guidance and hard work of:

  • sub-branch members in every workplace
  • representatives on Council
  • the AEU ACT Executive
  • the elected Branch Secretary and President
  • the AEU ACT’s dedicated team of paid support staff
  • the Executive and officers of the AEU at the national level.

Mass meetings and stop-work meetings

From time to time in our history, members have been asked to take part in meetings of all AEU ACT members. Meetings held after hours (mass meetings) are voluntary and are often used to inform members about union actions and policies. The Executive and/or Council can also direct members to attend ‘stop-work’ meetings, which have the power to direct the Executive and Council in actions including further industrial stoppages. (Since the 1990s, however, industrial action can only take place during a formal bargaining period, not in response to incidents or issues arising at other times.)

‘The bosses versus the workers?’

Education is not like other professions: education and leadership research, our professional education and our shared values have encouraged us to see ‘educational leadership’ as the most significant role that principals and other school leaders can play.

As a result, education practitioners in the ACT public school system – across all promotional levels – have always been willing to take up the fight, through union forums, for strong educational outcomes and good working conditions, and sub-branches have seen the active involvement of members at all levels of the teaching service.

Most members active in the union have seen their activism as entirely compatible with leadership roles in their other professional associations and within the system.

In fact, many have found that the system-wide experience and knowledge gained through participation in union affairs has led to career advancement in the education sector and beyond.

However, this structure and approach has not been without its local challenges.

Putting our solidarity to the test

Sometimes, teachers in different sectors or at different promotional levels may perceive an advantage in forming a breakaway group to pursue their own special interests,and the government of the day may see disunity as a way of defeating education union claims.

‘I don’t want to come back to a divided school’: ACT school principals and the CE(EP) Act

In 1982, the federal government under Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser tried to defeat our union’s salary campaign by suspending some – but not all – teachers taking strike action in the ACT.

Using the infamous CE(EP) Act, the Fraser government acted to suspend teachers only in those schools scheduled to take part in that day’s rolling stoppages, locking them out of their workplaces. They threatened striking teachers with dismissal and promised rewards for disavowing union action.

The response across the ACT was strong and immediate: teachers abandoned rolling stoppages and took unified action across all sectors on the same day. Importantly, most school principals encouraged unity in this action: they knew that the government’s action was designed to create fear and disunity, and that the most important thing of all was for their whole school team to return to the workplace with a sense of solidarity intact.

Breakaway groups

Solidarity between teachers has also been tested from time to time. The Victorian Secondary Masters Association (VSMA) broke away from the Victorian Teachers’ Union in 1948 and the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association (VSTA) was formed in 1954 after female members were admitted. Victorian preschool teachers formed the Kindergarten Teachers Association of Victoria (KTAV) in 1954 and in 1967 the Technical Teachers’ Association of Victoria (TTAV, later TTUV) also formed their own union.

Divisions on sectoral lines have not tended to last, and by 1984 the VTU, TTUV and VSTA had re-amalgamated to form the Teachers Federation of Victoria (TFV). This is now the AEU Victorian Branch.

‘Robbing Peter to pay Paul?’ Saying no to resource redistribution
between sectors

In 1986, prior to ACT self government, federal government budget cuts were putting pressure on ACT school resourcing and there was also a perception that more resources were needed in the ACT’s primary schools. An internal report (the ‘Price report’) commissioned by the ACT Schools Authority recommended a redistribution of resources which would have significantly reduced the staff in secondary schools and transferred resources to the primary sector.

The proposers may have assumed that the primary sector would support the proposed redistribution, splitting from their secondary colleagues out of self-interest. But the unity of ACTTF (now AEU) members across the primary and secondary divide was decisive. Primary school teacher Rosemary Richards (pictured left) – a candidate in that year’s Branch Secretary’s election – explicitly campaigned on a policy of opposing the redistribution of resources within the school system and was elected.

The combined membership of our union endorsed two lines of action:opposition to any redistribution of resources across the sectors, and commitment to a campaign to reduce class sizes in primary schools as its first priority.

The Authority, under pressure from the united union membership and from the community, abandoned the proposal (although it did take until 2000 for the union to win the resources to significantly reduce primary class sizes).

Support for division is not always from the inside

Disunity does not always come solely from within union membership: it is often in the interests of the employer to offer incentives for division within the ranks of a strong union. In some cases, this has been supported by anti-union interest groups.

In the early eighties, the National Civic Council (NCC), led by conservative political activist Bob Santamaria, funded the creation of the Teachers’ Association of Australia (TAA). This project was an explicit attempt to undermine the creation of what was to become the Australian Teachers Union (ATU) and of the Independent Teachers Union (ITU) – both seen as too progressive and (through their national unity), too influential. In the end, it attracted virtually no members.

In the mid-1980s (at the peak of the NCC’s interference in teacher union issues nationally) a disgruntled ACT high school teacher attempted to establish an alternative classroom teachers’ union, and members actively handed out membership forms to teachers in ACT public schools.  Known as the ‘Professional Association of Classroom Teachers’ (PACT), it managed to recruit a total membership of less than 50 – many of whom also maintained their ACTTF membership – before the organisation faded away.

Principals bargaining separately

In the late 1990s, ACT Principals were approached by the then Victorian Principals’ Association (now the Australian Principals Federation), who were attempting to recruit members for what was hoped to be a national exclusively principals’ class union to operate independently of what was by now Australian Education Union (AEU) (the ATU having changed its name in 1993 to reflect its desire to cover education support workers as well as teachers).

ACT principals rejected the overtures of the Victorians and insisted that their interests were better aligned with the AEU both locally and nationally (unlike many principals in Victoria and Western Australia). The ACT Government had also tried – but failed – to get principals to leave the AEU and to accept individual contracts of employment.

However, the increasing demands of school-based management and associated increases in accountability and the complexity of leading multi-sector schools led some principals to believe that they could do better on their own. They felt that their remuneration, status and conditions had been diminished by the outcomes of recent industrial determinations and agreements covering the teaching workforce and by the policies of the then Carnell Liberal Government in the ACT. Consequently, most AEU principal members (encouraged by their employer), sought a separate principals’ salary and conditions agreement between the AEU and the employer.

The union’s senior officers, Executive and Council did not believe that it was in the long-term interests of principals or of the service as a whole. However, under sustained pressure from principal members, a school-budget-based model of salaries – supposedly reflecting complexity and accountability levels – was negotiated by the AEU senior officers, replacing the previous sector-based model. It was accepted by principal members in a majority vote of just over 60%.

Within months, an enterprise agreement covering the rest of the membership delivered (on average) higher salary outcomes and significant reources for professional development. By 2000, and with a change of government, principals requested a return to a single salary and conditions agreement, with their teaching colleagues, which was negotiated in 2001.

The experiment in going it alone had ended in reinforcing the message that unity was always the best policy.

Our experience in the ACT over the decades – whether it has been as the ACTTF or as the ACT Branch of the AEU –  has demonstrated that we are always stronger together in pursuing our common goals of improving conditions of employment and resources for the public education and training system.

*Did you know? The phrase ‘Out of many, one’ was first used by Virgil in the first century BC – he was referring to a popular cheese spread blended with many herbs, but using it as a metaphor for civic life in Rome.

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