On Thursday morning, public school and catholic school teachers striked together at the foot of NSW State Parliament steps for the first time since 1996.
“It’s only my second year of teaching and I think the fact that I'm feeling burnt out already says a great deal about the profession itself,” Vanii Pillay, a 24-year-old teacher, told VICE. “It's not fair on me, as a young person, it's not fair on the kids that I teach. Already, teachers are coming in and thinking ‘how long can I sustain and survive in this career’?”
In the wake of the pandemic, teachers from across the ACT and New South Wales have suffered at the hands of a ballooning workload and tepid wage bumps.
At the steps of NSW State Parliament on Thursday, they demanded the state government come to the table with a pay rise offer that accommodates projected inflation increases—which, according to economists, could rise to 7 percent before the year is out—and a workable solution to teacher shortages and the increased workloads that are accompanying them.
“We are here because teachers are burnt out and fed up with our uncompetitive salaries and absolutely ridiculous workloads,” Julia Mallen, a 30-year-old teacher, told VICE.
“Basically, the government is doing nothing about it because they provide us [with], and suggest, a 3 percent pay increase when inflation is currently [more than] 5 percent, heading towards 7 percent. It's ridiculous.”
The strike emerged as the third instance of industrial action taken by teachers over the last seven months, as the profession has simmered to boiling point. The most recent strike action comes off the back of a proposed pay increase for the state’s teachers made by the NSW government in its most recent state budget, which was handed down last week.
The budget papers proposed a pay rise of just 3 percent—followed by another 3.5 percent increase next year, depending on productivity gains—while catholic school teachers have been trapped in a similar wage stagnation malaise. The NSW government proposal was met with a wave of outrage from across the profession.
As a result, both the NSW Teachers Federation and the Australian Independent Education Union announced last week that members from across the state would walk out of class rooms for a 24-hour strike, as they call for a wage increase of 7.5 percent, which would accommodate rising inflation.
In a statement last week, NSW Teachers Federation president, Angelo Gavrielatos, said the workers had no choice.
“Acting on un-competitive salaries and unsustainable workloads is the only way to stop more teachers leaving and attract the people into the profession we need to fix the shortages,” Gavrielatos said.
“We asked the Premier to reconsider his decision to cap the pay of teachers at three per cent when inflation is more than five per cent and rising. Yet, he did nothing.”
Shrinking wages, and the modern complexities thrust upon teachers on the job, have also led to a chronic worker shortage across the country. The unions say there are almost 2,000 staff vacancies across the state, almost half of which are reported to be in regional areas. It’s an issue that, union heads say, just can’t be solved until the state government pulls its head “out of the sand”, and offers more attractive salaries.
“I'm a second-generation teacher,” Megan Guerrero, a 33-year-old teacher, told VICE.
“I've grown up with how hard it is. I do it for the right reasons. I do it for the children sitting in front of me. But at what cost? I was the child who never got to see mum. I was the child who didn't have time with their parents,” she said.
“Now I have my own child, and I'm now feeling the guilt, imposing it on my own daughter. But if I want to do my job well I need to spend more time and more money on your kids than on my own.”
Sarah Mitchell, the NSW education minister, responded to the strike action by accusing union heads of politicising the ongoing pay and workplace conditions negotiations, which she suggested are among Australia’s most generous.
I am disappointed with the action today, it really does make it very difficult for thousands of families and students and it's frustrating that they're continuing to push down this cause rather than just to negotiate with us and try and reach a good outcome,” Mitchell said.
“We’ve got the most generous pay increase on the table of anywhere in the country, yet other states aren’t seeing this sort of industrial action.”
It’s a line that was run firmly by the NSW Treasurer, just one week earlier. After the Perrottet government handed down its budget last week, his words were almost identical, when he suggested that union bargaining did not, in fact, have anything to do “with pay”, and instead has “everything to do with politics”.
So far, the government’s efforts to abate some of the pains felt by teachers across the state have had little to no impact. Last year, the government announced the roll out of a new worker poaching “strategy” which the NSW Department of Education was confident would attract 3,700 extra teachers over the next decade, without a pay increase.
The strategy has managed to attract just one new teacher, who lasted just just a month in the job before quitting.
The incident was offered up at Thursday’s rally during a speech by Gavrielatos—more evidence for the government’s flawed crisis management efforts.
The thousands of teachers in attendance erupted in laughter.
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