Lester Rootsey’s father, a sometime headmaster and Victorian Teachers Union member, clearly made a big impact on the younger man. Following him into the profession, Lester joined Garfield Primary School as a student teacher before moving on to Melbourne Teachers College. After graduation, he went on to teach at several regional Victorian primary schools, eventually becoming a head teacher himself at Pine Lodge Primary School near Shepparton.
Lester was always a proud member of the VTU, but it took a while for him to embrace activism directly. His call to action sprung from his frustration at some delegates who would enjoy the benefits of travel to attend state conferences without ever appearing at their local branch meetings.
Believing it was important to do the hard yards and take care of your own patch, it was his vociferous commentary on that subject that saw him pressed into active service.
True to his word, Lester was a dedicated and vocal regular at local union branch meetings, eventually becoming a delegate. His keen interest and commitment attracted the attention of then-president Don Bull, who would eventually tap Lester to become his deputy. As a leadership team, the pair was a force to be reckoned with, holding the long-standing Liberal government to account and instigating a more progressive, industrial focus.
Those who knew Lester always remark on his sincerity, his integrity and his straight-talking manner.
When Bull left the VTU in 1976 to join the Teachers Tribunal, a ready, willing and able Lester was elected president in his stead. A seamless transition, it was also a landmark occurrence as the first state-wide election undertaken by the entire VTU membership. Lester furthered the march of progress at the VTU, restructuring the union and encouraging membership participation in policy development and decision-making. He also pushed for more active industrial and political campaigning. Those who knew Lester always remark on his sincerity, his integrity and his straight-talking manner.
Under Lester’s leadership the union successfully took several wage claims to the Teachers Tribunal.
He campaigned vigorously on needs-based staffing and established the Elimination of Sexism in Education Committee to develop policy and prosecute campaigns on that important topic. Winning improvements in career opportunities for teachers, he worked collaboratively with both the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association (VSTA) and the Technical Teachers Union of Victoria (TTUV), campaigning forcefully on issues of common interest. In the lead-up to the 1982 state election, Lester spearheaded a powerful campaign prosecuting the case for a Labor government in Victoria for the first time in 27 years. Incumbent Liberal Premier
Lindsay Thompson had largely ignored the needs of primary education and teachers. He was swept from power on election night, with Labor leader Jon Cain seizing Spring Street.
Lester was incredibly proud of the union’s campaign and immediately began working positively with new education minister, Robert Fordham, to implement much-needed improvements. Chief among those was the abolition of limited tenure employment and the replacement of the Teachers Tribunal with a new industrial body, the Victorian Teaching Services Conciliation Arbitration Commission (VTSCAC), commencing direct negotiations on staffing levels and better conditions for teachers.
The first Conditions and Staffing Agreement was signed by the union and the minister shortly after Lester’s term as president ended and he was appointed to VTSCAC. Lester was then appointed to the Industrial Relations Commission of Victoria, where he served until his retirement. He once more gained a reputation as a straightforward, no-nonsense operator – the very qualities that had stood him in such good stead as VTU president.
Pivotal in the VTU’s journey from a conservative-leaning organisation to a modern, progressive industrial and political force, Lester will be remembered fondly for fostering a spirit of collaboration with the leaders of both the VSTA and TTUV, setting the groundwork that would lead to all three unions coming under one banner as AEU Victoria. His contribution to the teacher union movement was immense.
Lester Rootsey, president of the VTU from 1975 to 1982, passed away peacefully on 23 February, aged 90. He is survived by his wife Nell and two children, James and Marilla.