Schools Doing my bit: reflecting on 46 years as a union member

David Adamson with AEU Victorian branch secretary Erin Aulich (left) and branch president Meredith Peace (right). Photo: Sam Danby

After 46 years of union membership, DAVID ADAMSON has seen some things change and some remain the same in fighting for public education.

In 1978, I began teaching and joined the union, and I have recently retired after a career as a teacher and principal. My service record shows that I took strike action on 58-and-a-half days across my career, and this got me thinking. Over my 46 years of union membership, what’s changed, what has remained the same, and what challenges does the AEU now face?

As teachers, we are often unaware of the profound effect we have on our students. When I was at school, a staff shortage had led to the employment of many unqualified ‘teachers’. In 1971, my own teachers won the ‘control of entry’ campaign – ensuring all teachers were fully trained – thanks to six years of committed industrial action.

I went to school in a country town, and I saw the pressure that these teacher unionists were under from the conservative local community. Two things impressed me. Firstly, the courage, commitment, strength, and persistence they showed, despite the strong community backlash. And, possibly more importantly, that they didn’t stand to gain anything for themselves from their sacrifice. They were taking this action for us, their students, and to improve the system.

My teachers’ action changed my political thinking and made me recognise the importance of a strong union.

Their action changed my political thinking and made me recognise the importance of a strong union. I joined the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association (VSTA) on my first day of teaching. Very quickly, I was involved in a campaign opposing the employment of teachers on Limited Tenure and, in 1979, attended the first joint strike meeting of the then three teacher unions (VSTA, TTAV and VTU).

Over the next decade and a half, the union I joined changed from one with a narrow base, only representing secondary teachers in Victoria, through a series of mergers and growth into the AEU, representing education support, teachers, and principals in all sectors, across Australia. This unity was demonstrated in 2012, when 15,000 members marched to Parliament House in support of EBA negotiations. My ES staff felt nervous about taking strike action, and so it helped when their counterparts from other schools told them it was great to see their principal striking alongside them.

In the more than 50 years since the ‘control of entry’ victory, the union is more important than ever as we see history being repeated. With the current staff shortage, we now have unqualified trainee teachers working in schools with Permission to Teach (PTT) status. Instead of Limited Tenure, there are significant numbers of teachers on contracts. The AEU continues to play a crucial role in holding the government to account. Principals must now justify keeping staff on contracts and there are strict conditions around PTT employment.

As well as protecting members’ industrial and professional rights, the AEU now has a bigger brief: campaigning to protect and strengthen public education overall.

Because governments change, the AEU needs to be eternally vigilant to prevent hard-won conditions being eroded, while also fighting for improvements and addressing new challenges. As well as protecting members’ industrial and professional rights, the AEU now has a bigger brief: campaigning to protect and strengthen public education overall.

In 1964, the Menzies government introduced federal funding for independent and Catholic schools, and successive governments have all contributed to the development of the inequitable system that exists today. With the Albanese government, there does seem to be an opportunity to begin to right this wrong.

The AEU has become a crucial player in pressing for change through its For Every Child campaign. In my school, the long-running underfunding of government schools meant that students with learning or behavioural challenges didn’t get the support they needed. Teachers did their best with what they had but they were overworked and frustrated that they couldn’t do more.

As a principal, much of my time was taken up trying to balance an inadequate budget, writing (often unsuccessful) submissions for additional funds, and making tough decisions about which essential program to cut. This didn’t leave much time to be an educational leader. In the end, everybody missed out.

Principals often have to make difficult choices, which are not always popular with some staff members. At times like that, being a union principal at least provided a wider sense of solidarity. We all had our jobs to do, and my staff had faith that I would follow the VGSA. On the rare occasion that an issue arose, AEU organisers were able to support all of us, working together, to find a positive resolution.

I joined the union to make my contribution, building on the achievements of the teacher unionists that inspired me. Hopefully, I have done my bit.

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