On the same day that tens of thousands of teachers and school workers returned to reopened schools across Victoria, the Australian Education Union (AEU) state leadership last Friday announced it was shutting down limited work bans.
These bans, operational last November–December, were triggered by unresolved negotiations between the union and the state Labor government over a new industrial agreement covering the public school system. The actions were of the most limited character. They included prohibitions on state parliamentarians visiting schools, a ban on implementing online trial NAPLAN standardised tests, a staff boycott of one of the usual two after-school meetings each week, and a refusal to reply to certain Department of Education emails.
In shutting down these restricted measures on the first day of term in 2022, the AEU was sending a calculated message to the state government and the ruling elite more broadly. As the schools are forced to reopen amid dangerously high levels of COVID-19 infection in the community, the bureaucracy will do everything within its power to suppress opposition among teachers and school workers. Not even the most constrained forms of industrial action will be permitted while coronavirus rips through the schools.
According to Channel 7 News, in the 24 hours between Monday 4 p.m. and Tuesday 4 p.m. this week, COVID infections were detected at 380 schools across Victoria, affecting 682 students and 63 staff. Not a single school was closed in response.
The AEU has enthusiastically supported the reopening drive. State president Meredith Peace last week claimed that the state Labor government of Premier Daniel Andrews was placing “health and safety at the forefront.” Neither Peace nor anyone else has said anything about the entirely predictable explosion in case numbers in the schools over the last four days.
The union bureaucracy’s contempt for the rights of teacher-members was reflected in its unilateral and anti-democratic shutdown of the work bans. In a statewide ballot organised last year, 97 percent of voting AEU members supported the actions. A vote was not organised before the bans were called off.
Nor was any serious explanation provided. In a brief message sent to AEU members, the union leadership declared there had been “significant progress on key issues regarding workload and salaries.” Not a single detail of this purported progress was provided. Nevertheless, the statement continued, “effective immediately,” all bans were being suspended, “in an act of good faith given the progress being made.”
The AEU’s shutdown of limited industrial action in Victoria follows the union’s calling off of a threatened strike in South Australia (SA). Fearful of the enormous opposition developing among ordinary teachers and school workers over the dangerous schools reopening, the union in SA held a ballot for a one-day strike scheduled for the beginning of term. Within days, however, and after teachers had overwhelmingly endorsed the strike, the bureaucracy called off the action, on the basis of supposed progress in their talks with the state government on the terms of the reopening.
The union’s collaboration with state and federal governments in the school reopening drive is a highly conscious operation.
The AEU bureaucracy knows it is sitting atop a powder keg. Part of its strategy in blocking an eruption of opposition from below involves an attempt to isolate and wear down the most knowledgeable and outspoken educators within each school. This is why it is resorting to blatant censorship on social media, as it attempts to block any forum for a broad-based discussion allowing concerned and hostile teachers and school workers to connect with one another.
Union officials operating the AEU Victoria’s Facebook page have deleted multiple comments posted in recent days. Some of these were responding to a union post that promoted an American teacher’s account of her return to the classroom, which urged educators to “embrace the simple, sublime moments.”
In response to this disgusting display of contempt for the health and safety concerns of teachers being forced into unsafe classrooms, one teacher responded, all in caps: “I am furious. Why are schools returning to face to face teaching at this time? All the gear in the world does not make schools safe for students, teachers or their families. Gear has not even arrived in schools at appropriate levels. They are expecting many teachers to get sick. Maybe even 1 in 5. […] It is a disaster waiting to happen. No one is taking appropriate action. What about you [i.e. the union]? A totally political decision. Not based on health. A myopic economic decision. When the damage is done it will be too late. Someone has to stop this train wreck before it happens.”
Another poster replied: “AEU doesn’t care about its members anymore.”
A member of the Committee for Public Education (CFPE), a rank-and-file teachers group fighting against the union-enforced reopening, explained that it was “based on the interests of business and will lead to teachers, ES staff and students unnecessarily contracting the virus. Lives are in danger and people threatened with getting Long COVID as well. Should not be returning to face to face teaching when infections and deaths are increasing.”
All three comments were quickly deleted by the union. How many others have been wiped cannot be determined. It can be noted, however, that there is not a single posted comment expressing opposition to the school reopening from the nearly 20,000 people who follow the AEU Facebook page.
Sharp lessons must be drawn from AEU’s role in the latest stage of the COVID pandemic. The union serves the interests of the government, not the membership. The bureaucracy’s considerable material wealth and privileges ultimately derive from its collaboration with the state, not only on coronavirus policy but also on issues such as wages and working conditions within the schools, as well as the broader, decades-old assault on the public education system.
The development of new forms of organisation—rank-and-file committees, built in every school and community—has never been more urgent. Claims that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is “mild” are nothing but pro-business propaganda. In the US, to take just one international example, thousands of people are dying every day, children among them. Countless young people are being needlessly exposed to potentially lifelong, debilitating Long COVID symptoms. This all has nothing to do with the wellbeing or learning of school students—it is driven by the capitalist class’s determination to keep workers in their workplaces.
Entirely needless and preventable deaths and serious illnesses caused by in-school virus transmission must not be permitted! Teachers and school workers should contact the Committee for Public Education and take forward the fight for rank-and-file committees and for the necessary action to suspend unsafe face to face teaching, including strike action.