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The Fight for Safe and Healthy Working Conditions

Safe and healthy working conditions have always been core business for our union. 

Over the past five decades, the ACT Teachers Federation (ACTTF) and later the AEU ACT have worked with members to:

  • identify workplace risks;
  • develop comprehensive policies;
  • build partnerships with parents and other community groups;
  • raise OH&S issues with government and the employer; and
  • campaign successfully for the resources and protocols to address health and safety concerns.

Governments now recognise the human, workplace, legal and economic costs of unsafe workplaces, and the creation of an ACT Workplace Safety Commissioner and the training and placement of designated health and safety representatives has been important in the process of cultural, legislative and regulatory change. 

Community support has also played an important part in these campaigns, because parents recognise that the working environment for teachers is the learning environment for students. 

The significant OH&S issues the AEU ACT Branch has campaigned on in recent years include:

  • class sizes in practical areas; 
  • asbestos in school buildings;
  • lead paint exposure;
  • chemicals in art and science classrooms and dust extraction in manual arts workshops;
  • polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and flued heaters;
  • management of heat and cold in teaching spaces;
  • Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI); 
  • noise levels;
  • ‘reasonable accommodation’, access and support for disability;
  • bullying and harassment;
  • occupational violence; and
  • work-related stress and other mental health issues.

Asbestos in 1983 and COVID in 2020/21: what worked

The past 50 years has seen a steady shift from traditional industrial action towards parent and community partnerships, effective media and political campaigns, and cooperation between the AEU ACT, the government and the Directorate to address issues affecting the teaching service and individual members. 

In 1983, the ACTTF (now the AEU ACT Branch) had to deal with one of its most significant OH&S issues, in what was to become a multi-decadal campaign; the presence of asbestos in schools and other workplaces. 

Asbestos, in its various forms, can cause disease including asbestosis and mesothelioma. Used in school buildings in insulation, benchtops, mats, pipe lagging and other forms, asbestos represented a very real danger to staff and students. 

The danger of asbestos had been recognised as early as the 1960s by manufacturers, governments and scientific organisations. However, because of public ignorance, industry cover-ups and government ineptitude and complicity, it took national and local campaigns to eventually get governments to address the issue: to remove it from public and private buildings and materials and to response to the needs of individual victims.

In the ACT, the Federal Government financed a failed program to remove asbestos from over a thousand homes (subsequently demolished under a compulsory purchase program by the ACT Government).

But several schools – including Watson High School, Woden Valley High School, Narrabundah College and Richardson and Scullin Primary Schools – also faced serious issues. ACTTF union officers and members worked for months to highlight the deadly seriousness of the asbestos issue to the ACT community and to demand the action from the Federal Government and the ACT Schools Authority to protect staff and students. 

Four things characterised this campaign:

  1. Grass-roots action
    Of particular note in this campaign was the role of AEU ACT members in highlighting the inadequacies of the government and directorate responses to this crisis; inadequate air testing in buildings; an inadequate inspection regime; and inadequate alternative accommodations for students and staff.
  2.  Student, parent and community action and support
    The campaign would have been less likely to succeed if it had not been for staff and student action and the public outrage generated once parents and community members became informed of the issue.

    Protest action taken by Narrabundah College students outside Parliament House and close liaison between the college union members – under the leadership of the college’s sub-branch president John Hoskin, and sub-branch secretary Freya Dauth – increased the pressure on both the Schools Authority and Federal Government. Following earlier commitments relating to Watson High School and other schools, the Federal Minister for Education, Senator Susan Ryan, finally announced a program of asbestos removal for Narrabundah College.
  3. Collaboration across the union movement
    While the ACTTF was able to negotiate a long-term positive outcome for its members, students and the community on the issue, it would not have occurred without the support of the ACT Labour Council. ACTTF Senior Officers Cathy Robertson and Joan Corbett, along with Schools’ Liaison Officer Bernie Hearn, worked closely with Charles Macdonald (Secretary of the ACT Trades and Labour Council) and Peter O’Dea (Secretary of the Builders’ Labourers Federation and TLC President) to get Federal Government action.
  4. Willingness to take industrial action
    The fact that the union was prepared to take industrial action to highlight the seriousness of a problem if necessary was also significant in escalating the issue.

A long shadow
Asbestos-related diseases are usually fatal and can manifest decades after initial and even limited exposure. In a tragic demonstration of the lasting dangers of the disease, in 2019 and 2020, the AEU ACT Branch assisted Dr Mick March (the founding principal of Narrabundah College and former ACTTF Vice President) to win a workers’ compensation case after his diagnosis of mesothelioma – and just before his death in February 2020, aged 90. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented government, employers and unions with the greatest workplace challenges in a century. While systems in Australia faced lockdowns, the challenge has been met in schools and TAFE with outstanding efforts to provide for the physical, mental and educational wellbeing of both students and teachers. 

The negotiated state, territory and national arrangements put in place over a year of continuing crisis have attempted to minimise student disadvantage and also to support staff in managing the extraordinary demands placed on them. The shift to online learning and changes to curriculum and assessment were carried out by hardworking, focused and dedicated professionals, supported by their union. 

An effective collaboration between teacher unions and government
To protect the wellbeing of members, the AEU ACT Branch acted early in the crisis by negotiating an agreement with the Directorate and ACT Government to:

  • enable working from home.
  • provide online support
  • create “hub” schools for the children of essential workers and others.

When the worst of the crisis was over, the union negotiated the reopening of schools and the transition of staff and students back into the workplace.

The success of this cooperative approach in the ACT and other Australian jurisdictions stands in stark contrast to the utter failures seen in the United States and the United Kingdom to manage the crises occurring in their school systems. In those countries and others, government and politicians frequently sought to demonise teachers and their unions in bitter political disputes over school closures, teacher and staff vaccination, reopening and mask wearing. 

With the vaccine rollout and as the pandemic in Australia transitions to a period of greater safety, it is worthwhile examining the OH&S challenges that have faced the union and its members in the past and to consider the lessons learnt by the union, the employer and government that enabled the COVID crisis to be met with positive, direct, timely and considered action.

OH&S issues require constant awareness and consistent education of members and the community, as evidenced by the recent discovery of yet more asbestos and lead paint issues in schools.

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