History Lesson: Salaries campaigning: An endurance test requiring all members

August 21, 2018

In the early 20th century, growing numbers of teachers began realising that the only path to salary justice was to organise and fight for the right to appear before an independent tribunal, rather than rely on the sympathetic promises of politicians.


By 1920, the government amended legislation to give public servants the right to access the arbitration court. Later that year, the court granted the first award for NSW public education teachers. The award was achieved through negotiations between Federation and the Department rather than conciliation. Negotiation has since proven to be a key union strategy in improving teachers’ salaries. Despite a protracted dispute with the government over the operative date and back pay for teachers, the 1920 award represented the largest salary increase for teachers in more than 40 years.

However, history shows that achieving wage improvements — and even the status quo — requires more than a negotiation committee.

Mass meetings and petitions

In the context of the Depression, in 1929 the Bavin Government cut public servants’ salaries by 8.33 per cent via the Salaries Reduction Act. The Lang Government then increased the cut to 25 per cent in 1931.

For years, Federation’s leading officers joined leaders of other public servant unions in calling for a repeal of the act, but to no avail. Another approach was required so, in 1934, strategies that are used to this day were engaged, including a petition and a mass meeting of members.

“Methods which increasingly involved full membership activity and operation came to be recognised as appropriate, and even essential, on occasions when the basic interests of teachers were challenged,” writes Matt Kennett in The Teachers Challenge. “Year by year, amendments were made to the Salaries Reduction Act to ease the incidence of the salaries cuts. By the end of 1936, 70 per cent of the cuts had been restored. In 1937, they disappeared altogether.”

AD Spaull observes in Australian Teachers: From Colonial Schoolmasters to Militant Professionals: “Extensive publicity, mass meetings and the normal Federation tactics were used to accompany negotiated agreements with the Public Service Board. Between 1943 and 1959, eight agreements for higher salaries were signed, and only once did the board unilaterally determine the salaries.”

Grassroots support and united action

Methods employed by a Federation equal-pay committee, established in 1949, finally achieved equal pay for equal work for women teachers in 1963, a policy of the union since 1919.

In addition to petitions and deputations to NSW parliamentarians and election candidates, the committee crucially set about educating members on the issue at conferences and via articles in Education to establish grassroots support for the campaign. The committee also joined forces with other groups which were demanding equal pay.

By 1958, public support for equal pay had grown to the point where the Cahill government passed legislation applying to all people employed under state awards. In June 1959, Federation accepted a Public Service Board plan for equal pay for women teachers to be implemented over four years. (From Colonial Schoolmasters to Militant Professionals, AD Spaull).

Work value cases

Federation has presented work value arguments several times in the industrial commission, including in 1969-1970, achieving a 14 per cent increase over two years in addition to an interim increase equivalent to 12 per cent.

The 1970 work value judgment by the Industrial Commission was one of the most significant in the history of Federation and an independent Industrial Relations Commission — especially the dissenting judgment of Justice Sheldon. The long, protracted hearing involved visits to several schools and hearings in situ.

In his reason for granting a 16 per cent salary increase, Sheldon said, “I believe we have undertaken the most comprehensive review of the work of teachers by any industrial tribunal or any other wage-fixing authority. I also believe that every day we have spent has been worthwhile. In this judgment, we have tried to convey the effect of what we have heard but above all what we have seen because it is only by going to schools and seeing what happens to children in and out of class that a really complete picture emerges.

“It is sufficient to say here that in the result [of work changes], teaching as professional work has moved to a higher plane and this must now be reflected in salaries. All I am suggesting is that each case should be examined on its own facts without any preconceptions one way or the other.

“In the light of all the foregoing, and in an endeavour to give realistic effect to all matters which I have said carry weight with me, I have reached the conclusion that to provide just and reasonable salaries, it is necessary to increase by 16 per cent the salaries applicable to all the scales and promotion positions as at 11 September 1970. To arrive as a true result, it must be remembered that this 16 per cent would be additional to the increases granted in the interim award of 1969 [12 per cent].”

The President of the IRC, Justice Beattie, and Justice Cook awarded 14 per cent on top of the interim increases.

Annual Conference in 1970 recognised the new award as a long overdue step towards teachers’ professional status, and resolved, “Action is essential now to prevent the increases granted to teachers from being whittled away.” It charged 1971 Executive and Council with conducting a vigorous campaign.

Strike action

Although the first one-day strike of NSW public education teachers on 1 October 1968 was held on the wider platform of working conditions — salaries being just one of the claims — it cemented strike action as a tactic in salaries campaigns.

One-day statewide salaries strikes were held in 1973 and 1974 in pursuit of the union’s salaries claims. Denis Fitzgerald notes in Teachers and their Times: History and the Teachers Federation that the 1970s ended with the union hamstrung by the federal wages system.

“The deteriorating level of salaries required a dramatic catch-up strategy,” he writes. “The 1981 school year began with a statewide strike on the second day following the vacation and in the week thereafter, a second strike was called, which was extended to a 48-hour stoppage.”

The real value of NSW public education teacher salaries declined by $16,000 between 1974 and 1990, due to federal control of wage fixation. But from 1990, members engaged in significant industrial action in the form of Sky Channel stopwork meetings, and half- and full-day strike action over a 16-year period to restore salaries relativity. (Fitzgerald). This included the 18 November 1999 rally where copies of the Director-General’s proposed award were thrown over the fence of NSW state parliament.

Strike action was again required to force salary increases out of politicians for the award settled in 2000. Fitzgerald comments that defending professional standards and living standards is “an endurance test”.

Multiple tacks

Federation established the Independent Inquiry into the Provision of Public Education in NSW in 2001, headed by Tony Vinson. The Inquiry’s third report (September 2002) called for a catch-up salary increase of no less than five per cent.

Campaigning for a 2004-2005 award started with negotiations, but when the award was being arbitrated in the Industrial Relations Commission in 2003, members took industrial action, attended rallies in school holidays and after-school events, and lobbied MPs.

The peaceful, fully-funded 2005 salaries settlement was testament to the willingness of Federation members to engage in industrial action. President Maree O’Halloran and General Secretary Barry Johnson wrote in the 2006 annual report: “The State Government was well aware that only one year previously, Federation members had engaged in 48 hours of action against the Carr Labor Government’s political interference in the 2003-2004 salaries arbitration.”

Stopwork action in 2008 and the threat of a 48-hour stoppage in January 2009 forced a negotiated settlement.

In 2011, the O’Farrell government passed legislation that constrains the NSW Industrial Commission from delivering salary increases to public sector workers contrary to the NSW Public Sector Wages Policy — which in 2018 still caps increases at 2.5 per cent per annum. Since this legislation has passed, Federation has not been able to secure wage increases around the 2.5 per cent.

At 2018 Annual Conference, delegates voted to campaign with other public sector unions and Unions NSW to overturn the NSW Public Sector Wages policy and restore the right of public sector workers to pursue wage claims in the Industrial Relations Commission, unfettered by Government policy. The tradition of united action continues.

Widespread participation is the key

What history has shown is that better salaries increases are achieved when the government sees mass participation in Federation’s campaign. The union is in a better negotiating position when the government knows teachers are willing to embark in sustained campaigning.

Fitzgerald writes: “All sections of a membership need to be supportive of a campaign for it to be potent and all parts of the state need to be able to play a role in delivering the message.”

John Dixon, General Secretary


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Authorised by John Dixon, General Secretary, NSW Teachers Federation, 23-33 Mary St. Surry Hills NSW 2010

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© New South Wales Teachers Federation. All Rights Reserved.

Authorised by John Dixon, General Secretary, NSW Teachers Federation, 23-33 Mary St. Surry Hills NSW 2010

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