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When Unity Matters: What We Learned About Ourselves in 1982

Although reference is made hereunder to the AEU as a teacher union, members will know that since 2007 the AEU has also represented school assistants. School psychologists are also our members. 

In 2020, many would count the AEU ACT as a successful — and still evolving — professional and industrial organisation. But how should a teacher union measure its ‘success’? And how can a history of the union help us reflect both on our strengths and on the hard lessons learned over half a century? 

Taking the measure of a teacher union’s success

In September 2018, writing in the global investment magazine Forbes, Peter Greene posed the question: ‘Why do teachers join the union?’ His answer is complex, and reflects the diversity of teacher union membership, both here and in other countries:

I want to be a teacher, and I want to be treated fairly, professionally and respectfully.

I want to be a teacher, and I want to work for someone who provides the support or resources to help me do the job.

I want to be a teacher, and I need to provide my family with a decent standard of living.

I want to be a teacher, and I can’t do well when I have to constantly watch my back because I could be fired at any moment for any reason.

I want to be a teacher, and I don’t want to risk my family’s livelihood every time I stand up against injustice or stand up for my students.

I want to be a teacher, and because I cannot negotiate any of these conditions successfully as just one person, I’m joining a union so that we can work for these conditions for all of us, together.

For Greene, this last reason is linked to the challenges we face in keeping the best and brightest young teachers beyond 5 years. As teachers have been given more responsibility and have faced funding constraints and constant change agendas handed down from state, territory and federal decision-makers, we may increasingly face the ‘spreading slow-motion walkout’ that many American states are experiencing. In this context, writes Greene, ‘the union is like the oxygen supply in a submarine—critical to completing the mission’. 

A test of mettle in 1982: 2,800 teachers suspended and schools locked down

The solidarity of members of the union was severely tested in March 1982, when some 2,800 ACT public school teachers were suspended from duty by the federal government and forbidden to enter their workplaces. 

The basis for this action was the Commonwealth Employees (Employment Provisions) Act — known derisively as the ‘CEEP Act’ — which had been enacted under the Fraser Coalition government in 1977. (As ACT teachers were then directly employed by the federal government, they came under this federal Act.) 

Under Section 4 of the CE(EP) Act, ‘Commonwealth employees engaged in industrial action may be suspended: 
(4) Where persons who are Commonwealth employees … are engaged in industrial action, the employing authority may … declare that [these] employees … are suspended … ‘

More than that, if industrial action by some employees meant that other Commonwealth employees couldn’t do any meaningful work, they could be stood down too:  ‘(5) Where, by reason of the existence of any industrial action (including industrial action in which Commonwealth employees are not engaged):
(a) persons who are Commonwealth employees in relation to an employing authority cannot be usefully employed; or
(b) there is serious disruption to the performance of a function by an employing authority … the employing authority may, by instrument in writing, declare that Commonwealth employees … but not being engaged in the industrial action, are stood down during the [same] period.’ 

The industrial action that prompted the stand-down

Since September 1981, ACT Teachers’ Federation members had been pursuing salary and conditions claims while the employer repeatedly promised that an offer was ‘about to be made’ — but in February 1982, soon after the start of the school year, the offer that came down was a ‘0%’ increase. 

In response to this, the ACT Teachers’ Federation decided to implement ‘rolling’ strikes (an industrial strategy that impacts students and parents in only one part of the territory on each day, while keeping the industrial action in the news over a more sustained period). Over the following days, the Fraser Coalition government threatened to cancel the deduction of union dues from teachers’ fortnightly pay packets—and then threatened to use the CE(EP) Act to suspend teachers from duty without pay if they continued the action. 

The axe fell on the third day of rolling strikes, Thursday 11 March 1982, with the suspension of 400 teachers during their rolling stoppage in Belconnen. The action was seen as a heavy-handed and politically motivated act by the federal government—and such was the emotion at the time that an immediate stoppage of the full membership was held the next day. Members present at the AIS arena voted overwhelmingly to take strike action across the ACT in support of their colleagues. 

This act of solidarity meant that the government could not target just 400 teachers in one ACT school region: it was faced with having to suspend without pay almost its entire teaching workforce. 

The government’s response

The government went ahead with cancellation of the membership deductions facility—a move designed to cripple the union financially—and also attempted to keep a handful of schools open. Relying on a small number of (what were described at the time as) ‘scabs’, this strategy could offer little more than an insecure temporary child-minding service for a small number of children. 

In another attempt to undermine union members’ solidarity, the government offered to reinstate any teacher who was prepared to ‘disassociate’ themselves from the industrial action by signing a personal pledge to that effect. (It is not known if any member actually signed a pledge.) 

Union members’ solidarity

Members continued to support the union financially by paying their union dues in advance in cash, by cheque and alternative deduction schemes. Commonwealth Teaching Service Christmas Island members of the ACT Teachers’ Federation also donated wages in support of the Teacher Welfare Fund.

Meanwhile, the Teachers’ Federation determined the next steps through debate at Executive, Council and stop-work meetings. The original union action had been in defence of legitimate salary and conditions claims. But once the CE(EP) act was employed by the government to intimidate and punish members and their union, each individual teacher then took what can only be described as courageous personal action by joining strike action. There was a lot at stake: had the solidarity of members been shaken by the government’s actions and threats, the government would be likely to act in an even more punitive manner in the future. 

In many schools, school principals encouraged members to support each other in industrial solidarity: as one said, ‘When this is all over, I don’t want to come back to find a school that’s bitterly divided between those who did and did not take action in support of their colleagues.’ 

Support from all quarters

ACT Teachers’ Federation President Keith Lawler and General Secretary Cathy Robertson, who led the campaign, received the strong support of members and, in their interviews and written contributions for the AEU ACT history project, both Keith and Cathy have emphasised the importance of union member solidarity in defeating the CE(EP) Act and its anti-union and anti-worker provisions. 

Public opinion also supported the union’s action: while parents and members of the public expressed some concern over the industrial action, their letters to the Canberra Times blamed the government and Public Service Commission for inciting and worsening the dispute.

The Australian Industrial Relations Commission intervened, with Commissioner Justice Judith Cohen’s judgement favouring the union — leading to a substantial interim salary increase for both school sector and TAFE, awarded to get teachers to return to work with their suspensions lifted. Further salary increases were awarded subsequently by the Commission, despite the opposition of the Fraser Coalition government and of the Public Service Board. 

The provisions of the CE(EP) Act were never used again to intimidate employees. 

A year later Bob Hawke replaced Malcolm Fraser as Prime Minister and introduced the Accord process, Enterprise Bargaining and eventually ACT self-government — which eventually rewrote the process of wage determination for Canberra’s employees.

Were you CE(EP)ed in 1982? Write in to the AEU ACT History Project at with your memories.

Read more about the events of 1981 and 1982 in the National Library of Australia’s Trove collection of ACTTF journals and Canberra Times articles of the period. The ACT Branch website will also carry the interview transcripts of key figures.

Could it happen again? How would we respond?

The past fifty years have seen a series of federal measures by conservative governments that aim to undermine the collective strength of unions, both in Australia and in other countries. The union has faced challenges of this nature in the past with the Howard Government’s discredited Work Choices legislation, the 2006 salaries and conditions campaign.

In 2019 there has been a renewed assault on the union movement by the federal government in the form of the so-called Ensuring Integrity Bill — unmatched by any comparable bill focussing on the actions of employers. The bill failed in the Senate in 2019 by the single vote of Senator Jacqui Lambie, but is to be relisted in 2020.

Writing in the online journal Yahoo Voice, Dr Jim Stanford of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work put the Bill in context:

Australia’s very restrictive labour laws have criminalised normal union activity that is perfectly legal in most other countries….This Bill will… decrease their opportunities just a little more to build bargaining power and win better wages from their employers. 
…Already in the private sector, just 11% of workers have the benefit of an enterprise agreement to win them higher wages and some decent protection…That’s precisely because of the restrictions on union activity, and the demonisation of unions. This bill is a little more of the same.

The AEU ACT hopes that this slice of its history encourages branch members and other groups of teachers to dig deeper into some of the key moments in our past 50 years—and to reflect together on the challenges to come.

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