For everyone Building a union school

A strong union culture means a happier school for everyone. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

For the sub-branch at Brunswick North Primary, a strong union culture means a happier school for everyone – staff and students alike. 

Emma Beale, sub-branch representative at Brunswick North Primary, sums it up best: “Having a strong union culture makes our school a better place.”

Emma began teaching in 2009. By 2010, she was the union rep. “It was a very small school, and I started the same year as a fantastic AEU principal, Sonia Abdallah. She got in my ear and said, ‘I know you’re a grad, but could you start up a sub-branch?”

By the time the union started negotiations for a new Victorian Government Schools Agreement in 2011–12, union membership at Brunswick North PS had “snowballed”, climbing to almost 100% density (the percentage of staff who are union members) from around 30% when Emma started. And it has stayed that way ever since.

“We have set the standard – that this is a union school – and we use that line when new staff arrive. We’ve proudly got our 2018 award for ‘AEU Sub-branch of the Year’ on display,” says Emma.

“Staff need to see that there’s someone they can turn to when they’re having trouble who will act on those issues.”

Emma Beale, sub-branch rep

(L–R): Michael Cosmano, India Papa, Tate Anderson, Emma Beale, and Alexandra Chambers.

That was the year teacher Tate Anderson returned after five years in the UK. “I noticed a big change in the union’s visibility when I came back. We have ‘union shirt Monday’ – which is also our assembly day, so parents can see that we’re highly unionised.”

Tate, now the school’s sub-branch president, is always encouraging others to get a strong sub-branch going at their workplace. “I regularly attend regional meetings and hear people saying that they don’t receive the entitlements in the agreement.

“Here [at Brunswick North PS] the leadership team knows that we understand the rules and that we know the agreement. We have a functioning consultative committee, and that means we have a forum for discussing any changes.

“Teacher friends so often say, ‘But it’s just me; I’m the only one who knows about this, and I don’t want to confront the leadership on my own.’ That’s why the strength in numbers is so important.”

“It’s the strength in numbers that’s so important.”

Tate Anderson, sub-branch president

According to Emma, a traditional sub-branch structure can be useful initially, but over time it has become “a bit more fluid” at Brunswick North Primary. “We swap the roles around and negotiate who takes on what, based on their other responsibilities. Sharing that workload is important.”

This is helped by having as many members as possible undertake AEU reps training. “We send people in pairs and build capacity as broadly as possible across the sub-branch,” explains Emma. “We’ve now got 12 or 13 people trained, so it’s the default setting, which has helped us a lot in building that union culture.”

(L–R): Fiona Skiffington Moretti, Heidi Ellemor, Nicola Howard, Wendy Radecki, and Tom Wolfendale. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

“It’s really important for women to have that representation.”

Nicola Howard, WOW

Teacher Nicola Howard initially worked as a CRT at the school. “As soon as I joined Brunswick North as a CRT, I signed up to the AEU. It’s a union school and you want to be a part of things,” she says. “The long-standing teachers are so passionate and incredibly committed. I knew straight away who the union reps were, and Emma always makes herself available and extends her support.”

Attending the AEU Women’s Conference, Nicola “loved the sense of unity”, which led her to take on the role of Women’s Officer in the Workplace (WOW). “I think it’s really important for women to have another woman they can approach – someone they can trust – and to have that representation. The men I work with are amazing but, more broadly, patriarchal systems still exist.”

“I want to help give us a voice.”

Wendy Radecki, ES rep

Education support member Wendy Radecki, now in her sixteenth year at Brunswick North PS, says the union has played a central role in building a cohesive staff. “Here, it’s all about equality; the union reps are very inclusive and always trying to encourage ES to stay involved.” However, Wendy feels that ES still don’t get the recognition they deserve within the wider education system – and that’s why she’s taken on the role of ES rep.

“I want to help give us a voice,” she says. “A few years ago, I attended an ES meeting run by the union where I was the only ES rep on their school’s consultative committee out of about 30. ES need to speak up and be more active because sometimes the system forgets about us and focuses more on teachers. We’re a central part of the school, and every decision affects us.”

“I want to work where staff feel supported and protected, and their wellbeing is at the forefront.”

India Papa, social co-ordinator

For teacher India Papa, having a “union lens and strong union voice” creates transparency about those decisions. “I feel protected and supported in our school. I trust that decisions have been made with integrity and that we work off merit and equity.”

India also appreciates that all decisions made at the school are “child-centric and community-focused”, she says. “The kids are at the centre of everything we do, and that’s why I’m really proud to work at this school, and in public education.”

Arriving two years ago from New Zealand, her first impression was that Brunswick North PS had a clear vision not only as a school but also specifically as a union school, with a “very community-driven and organised sub-branch”.

“It’s great to work in a school where being part of the union is embraced. That made the transition to working in Australia really easy. Emma and Tate take the time to explain the value of being in the AEU, and I knew exactly how the union could support me in my teaching practice,” she says.

Leadership support is also key, India adds. “Our union is always encouraged, and we have great representation across the school from every role group and year level and tier of leadership.”

India has taken up the unique role of social co-ordinator in the Brunswick North PS sub-branch. “It adds a bit of fun. Teachers and ES are so overworked and underpaid, and an additional meeting can often feel arduous. So, if we can add some treats or hold our meeting in a pub, that’s what I try to do.”

To have that safety and support is everything.”

Nicola Howard

As Emma says, there are “lots of little jobs that need doing” in a union sub-branch. “We have members who are highly active who I can ask to do things like run a survey for the school’s long-term plan, or those who are more inclined to make some cupcakes,” she says. “Showing you want to be active doesn’t have to be a big thing; we make it very clear in induction that there are lots of ways you can contribute. It doesn’t mean you have to run meetings.”

Nicola believes working in a school with union values adds a vital layer of safety. “Honestly, being at a union school – I cannot tell you how beneficial it is! Coming here, where there’s a strong union presence and people can talk openly about any changes within the school – it’s the difference between day and night. We pay a lot of money to be in the union, but it’s so worth it. To have that safety and support is everything.”

Read our step-by-step guide to building a thriving sub-branch in your school.

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