The guard is changing in teaching. Many are retiring and young teachers face a much bleaker environment than their elders did.
Yet the history of campaigns for justice teaches that people will continue to fight, even in the most difficult circumstances, but that doing things the same old way in new conditions means you get smashed.
World War One saw flesh and blood hurled against walls of bullets. It was not till the advent of tanks that the stalemate was broken. In China, Mao led the people to victory after near annihilation, rebuilding in Yan’an and en route in the Long March.
In NSW, teachers and other workers used to go on strike till the Industrial Relations Commission figured they had the numbers and strength to win. They’d rule in the workers’ favour, even while fining the union for striking. Employers would grit their teeth and put up with it.
Since O’Farrell organised the state wages legislation, the Commission can still fine unions, but they can’t award a pay increase beyond 2.5 per cent, because the government’s rewritten the rule book and productivity arguments have been abolished. Until the legislation is overturned, there will be no ruling above 2.5. One union alone cannot defeat that legislation.
In late 2013 the government attached a restructure to teacher salary negotiations, with traps that could have seen the union accused of 'protecting bad teachers' and opposing professionalism if they opposed the changes. It exploited existing fault lines between various sections of the workforce, but, critically, quarantined the devolution agenda. It also enshrined teaching qualifications, a key protection against educational vandals worldwide, including Pyne and Abbott, and significantly increased professional development funding.
While conditions are left intact, some see it as undermining the very collective, mass structures of teachers' employment. The concern is genuine and has some foundation. Yet the Teachers Federation Council, which brings 280 delegates together from across the state twice each term, after unanimously rejecting its first incarnation, overwhelmingly supported the agreement, when some sticking points were resolved.
This was endorsed at stopwork meetings across the state, attended by over 17,500 teachers.
Teacher unions have been fighting on a series of fronts, and the union has been keen to grasp the key battles, while closing down other fronts. Winning the Gonski battle is critical. Even Pyne's reopening of the history wars, as important as it is, is seen as a deliberate diversion from the main game.
Danger lurks if workers are not mobilised. Mass strikes and rallies give an unmatched sense of collective strength, but that can dissipate and turn into pessimism if victory is denied.
As a teacher at a stopwork meeting stated, “We're used to thinking of industrial action as the core of our activity, supplemented by political action in its broadest sense of people in action. Under current conditions it's the other way round. There's a reason Poodle Pyne got kicked back into his doghouse over Gonski, and that reason is us. We led that campaign without one minute of industrial action. We got private schools and a raft of Coalition leaders on our side through our members' strength and action over many years.”
In a recent retirement speech, a teacher said, “We’re in for very tough times. The whip is in the hand of the rich and powerful, the Rupert Murdochs, the mining and construction companies, the banks. I reckon they’ve always run the joint, but ordinary people like us, organised and determined, have kept them from running amok for most of my adult life.
“It’s not about individuals, though of course each person is precious, with all our differences and occasional disagreements. As teachers, as people, we’re a collective…It will be more difficult for people to organise in the future, but there’s a basic method: to listen, ask questions, assess whether you can succeed, to be - as a Chinese leader said - like fish in a sea of people.
“It’s simple, common sense – stick together. If you can’t win the big victories, win the little ones. Don’t take unnecessary risks, but be brave. Across the school, across the state, across the country. If it gets too hard, back off, take stock. You can’t win everything. There are very powerful forces trying to divide and defeat you.
“But don’t give up. Stick together.”