Editorial: Never apologise for what unions have achieved for workers 

The media beat-up about a nine minute a day claim by the federal government on public servants in the Australian Taxation Office (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-20/ato-admit-working-hours-are-below-community-standards/8284384) has some interesting insights for teachers in general and Queensland teachers in particular as we continue to grapple with excessive teacher workload.

Firstly, let us note that there was nothing like the same coverage of the amounts of unpaid overtime worked by Australian workers, including those in the federal public service, which make Australians among the hardest working in the world. It was something noted by senior public servants when they decided to defend the employees.

Why is a nine minute per day claim – argued to be reasonable because it was allegedly trivial – newsworthy, whereas the systematic theft of time from employees through expectations of unpaid overtime disappears after a couple of articles?

It reflects one of the double standards of news about employment. The theft of even a trivial amount of money is a heinous crime, but an employer can steal time – more precious and irreplaceable – from employees through expectations of unpaid overtime without comment.

Secondly, the claim was made in the course of enterprise bargaining negotiations and rejected by the union, the CPSU, and members. That occurred relatively early in negotiations. It was a typical employer try-on and predictably rejected. It was old news. Yet it preoccupied normally sensible journalists for days.

Many of them said that the workers should concede, because nine minutes was trivial and out-of-line with “community expectations” for employees to finish at 4.51 instead of 5 pm. The phrase was interesting; it was the same used to denounce the entitlements of federal parliamentarians, particularly after the odious defence of gold card privileges by some.

What better way to distract than to “leak” old news about the perennial whipping boys and girls of the federal public service? Who would attract less sympathy than those in the tax office?

Federal public servants have resisted demand after unreasonable demand during the course of enterprise bargaining negotiations for inadequate pay increases – some voting down inadequate agreements three times. As fellow unionists, they deserve our admiration for their resilience and their determination, then the approbation of the press and other media.

Nine minutes per day equates to 45 minutes per week, 4.5 days per year apparently (I haven’t done the maths myself). Let’s put ourselves in their shoes.

Would we trade-off 45 minutes a week? Sure as eggs, it wouldn’t reduce the additional time worked by teachers and principals outside of school hours. No, it would be an additional 45 minutes on top of an already excessive workload. Would we? No!

Would we trade off a week of holidays – five days? My editorial in the last Journal of 2016 examined the maths and myths of teacher workload. The hours generally worked by teachers easily compensate for additional holidays according to Australian industrial standards. No, we wouldn’t!

Right back to the two-tier wages system in 1987-8, we have refused to trade-off anything (except the hand towels) for pay increases. In the bizarre world of that time, a trade-off of eight days of school holidays would have equated to the 4 per cent on offer in the second tier. It was unacceptable then and it remains unacceptable to this day, particularly given the real hours that teachers work.

Neither should the workers in the ATO surrender time in the interests of alleged “flexibility” for the employer - isn’t it strange how flexibility for employers is a “good thing” and flexibility for employees a “bad thing”?

Reduction in working hours has been one of the ways in which employees have shared in productivity gains and it has been part of maintaining employment in the face of technological change and economic restructuring in recent times. The oldest campaigns of the union movement included the campaign for an eight hour day (eight hours work, eight hours leisure, eight hours rest). That resulted first in a 48 hour week, then 44, then 40, and the current maximum of 38 hours per week.

Who the hell do they think they are to demand more work from Australian workers?
Labour Day is also known as Eight Hour Day because of that pivotal early campaign in labour movement history. Let’s celebrate what the union movement has won for Australian workers, not apologise for, let alone surrender, the hard-won conditions that we have inherited and hold in trust.

For Queensland teachers, the mantra is less work not more as we take on the problem of excessive teacher workload.

Graham Moloney
General Secretary

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 122 No 2, 10 March 2017, p5