125th Anniversary Celebrations – President’s speech

Members of the Queensland Teachers’ Union, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen:

Before I commence, I wish to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are gathered, the Jagera and Turrbul peoples, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. I make this acknowledgment cognisant of the fact that the connection of the traditional owners to their land stretches back many tens of thousands of years, a sobering thought in light of the relatively minor anniversary we celebrate today.

The day is Wednesday 9 January, the year 1889, the Brisbane Courier newspaper reports that the weather was mostly fine and clear. 24 delegates from teacher associations across Queensland gather in the School of Arts building just down the street for a conference. They swiftly dealt with the business of agreeing to a constitution and rules for our union and the Queensland Teachers’ Union was created.

Today we celebrate the 125th anniversary of that event making us the oldest teacher union in Australia and one of the oldest unions in Queensland. My task is to spend the next few minutes sharing with you a little of our history. You will be relieved to hear that I will provide you with a reader’s digest version of events to ensure that we are not still here when the time comes to celebrate our 130th.

1889 was a momentous year for more reasons than the birth of our union. In the wider world:

  • the first motion picture is shown by Thomas Edison
  • the Coca-Cola company is formed
  • German inventor Zepplin patents the “navigable balloon”
  • the Eiffel Tower and Moulin Rouge are both opened
  • The Wall Street Journal is first published
  • Victoria is Queen of the British Empire, including the colony of Queensland
  • Benjamin Harrison is sworn in as the 23rd President of the United States
  • Charlie Chaplin is born
  • Robert Browning (poet) dies.

In the colony of Queensland:

  • Sir Samuel Griffith is the Premier and Field Marshall Sir Henry Norman Governor
  • The magnificent Customs House beside the Brisbane River and the Normanby Hotel are completed
  • The hottest recorded temperature in Australia’s history is measured at Cloncurry: 53.1 degrees celcius.

This was the crucible from which the QTU emerged. What then of our own history? I pause to borrow from the foreword to the QTU centenary book written by the 70th president of the QTU, Mary Kelly:

“…our history is so tightly woven in the life and times of Queensland and its labour movement that our story not only stands alone in significance and interest, but in its telling, reveals a great deal about the misunderstood or forgotten history of Queensland and its unions. In the current turbulent times, with Queensland’s notorious anti-union legislation and other attempts to undermine organised labour, it’s more important than ever to remember and re-examine the past.”

As would be expected from a trade union of our longevity, our history is punctuated by a series of firsts and recurring themes pertaining to our calling of teaching. In fact, it is scary how many times we have experienced the same issues as a union.

1892 – legal defence fund is established
1895 – first edition of Queensland Education Journal is published
1913 – Queensland’s public service superannuation scheme commences following a long campaign headed by the QTU
1917 – the QTU is officially registered under the Industrial Arbitration Act 1916 and wins the first teachers’ award in Australia later that same year
1929 – the first QTU building opens in Elizabeth Street, built with funds raised by debentures purchased by some 3,000 individual teachers and seven teacher associations – the QTU is the first teachers union to own its own building
1948 – QTU first attempts to win equal pay for women teachers – an application to this effect is finally granted by the Commission in 1967 well prior to the famous pay equity cases in the federal jurisdiction in 1969. Equal pay is finally achieved in 1971 due to the phased nature of the salary increases
1965 – QTU members form the Queensland Teachers’ Credit Union
1968 – teachers vote to take strike action in opposition to an emergency teacher scheme where teachers would be placed in high schools after only eight weeks training. This leads to a campaign for compulsory teacher registration to ensure standards
1972 – The Queensland Teachers’ Union Health Society is formed
1973 – threats of strike action force a reduction in class sizes: further campaigns in 1982 and 2003 see further reductions. 10,000 teachers stop work for a half-day in protest over an inadequate salary offer
1974 – strike action brings a commitment to government-provided accommodation for teachers – known as the Pasha Dispute. The QTU occupies its second building at Boundary Street in Spring Hill
1975 – compulsory teacher registration is finally introduced
1976 – the Charters Towers three are dismissed for smoking pot and QTU launches rolling strikes around the state to defend its members
1978 – the QTU leads a public campaign against political interference in school curriculum when the Bjelke-Petersen government bans SEMP and MACOS
1981 – the Moranbah teachers strike for five days to secure improved locality allowances
1982 – teachers strike for 24 hours in support of striking rail workers and take industrial action over secondary curriculum– I remember this industrial action as I was in year 12!
1987 – the QTU leads the fight to reverse the decision by the Queensland Government to abolish leave loading for public servants
1990 – massive wage increases restore respectability to Queensland teacher salaries, and stop work action by 130 schools ensues after the Labor government reneges on a promised Remote Area Incentive Scheme
1995 – non-contact time for primary and special school teachers is won by industrial action
1996 – industrial action by rural and remote schools forces the government to make a 400 per cent increase in the budget for the Remote Area Incentive Scheme
1997 – “leading schools”, a hair-brained scheme of school-based management is severely restricted after concerted industrial action, and the QTU moves into its third building; the current headquarters in Milton
2000 – arbitration delivers wage increases of 14.7 per cent after teachers reject a 3 per cent offer by the Labor government
2005-2007 – the QTU works with the labour movement in the Your Rights at Work campaign, which leads to the defeat of the Howard government
2010 – the NAPLAN dispute highlights the role of the QTU in professional issues, such as assessment and reporting
2011 – hundreds of teachers devastated by the string of natural disasters are assisted by the QTU
2012 – the threat of strike action delivers a modest salary increase and protects more than 20 working conditions the government sought to sweep away
2013 – a year of protests! As QTU members across the state wither under budget cuts and inadequate education funding, they rally to protect job security, oppose government attacks on TAFE, campaign for Gonski school funding reforms and to protect the profession from political interference of the most heinous kind in a scheme the state government euphemistically calls Great Teachers=Great Results

These are all events and episodes from our history that record what our Union has done, but the core of any union is the people and it is more important I think to consider who done it!

In 1889 the QTU had just 300 members representing about 35 per cent of the teaching workforce of just under about 860. By 1920 membership had leapt to 4,200, 1960 - 7,812, 1970 – 11,589, 1980 – 20,579, 1992 – 30,000 milestone reached, 2004 – 40,000 and 2014 - 43,000 members representing about 95 per cent of the teaching workforce.

The QTU has been led by 74 Presidents and 18 General Secretaries. The first full-time President, Gavin Semple, was elected in 1969. Ray Costello (President from 1972-1978), Lyle Schuntner (President 1978-1986), Mary Kelly (President 1986-1994) and Ian Mackie (President 1994-1998) have joined us today. And Reeva Baldwin, wife of Ted Baldwin who was President 1968-1969 is also with us. The first full-time General Secretary, William Geraghty, took up office in 1918. As the chief administrator of our Union, it is significant that there have been only 7 full-time General Secretaries. The three living General Secretaries, John Rockett, John Battams and Graham Moloney are also present today.

Over much of our history the work of the Union on the ground was achieved through the various teacher associations, seven or eight of them, spread across this vast state. The Darling Downs Teacher Association, the Assistant Teachers Association and the Secondary Teachers Association are just a few examples. Honorary officials in the thousands held positions of leadership among their peers. They convened meetings and ran local campaigns as representatives of the Union. The history records the great excitement of the annual tour by the General Secretary to the outer reaches of the state and well attended meetings of QTU members keen to hear from the Union’s leadership. The pinnacle of achievement within our union is the attainment of Life Membership, granted for long and outstanding service to the Union. There are 44 Life Members of our Union here today. You represent the heart and soul of our Union and we are greatly honoured by your presence.

Despite historical tendencies to isolationism, the QTU is today an active participant in the wider labour movement, a significant member of the Queensland Council of Unions, represented today by President John Battams, the Australian Education Union, represented today by President Angelo Gavrielatos and through the AEU, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, represented today by President Ged Kearney.

The day-to-day work of the union as an organisation has fallen to employees and assistant secretaries in various guises. I acknowledge the presence today of the very first industrial officer appointed by the Union in 1969, Mr Keith Story. I am also excited to see so many past staff members here today and I look forward to catching up as we share our memories of happy times. The QTU of 2014 is an organisation of more than 90 employees with offices in Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton, Bundaberg, Maryborough, the Sunshine Coast, Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Toowoomba. Paul Kelly said it best with the immortal words, from little things big things grow.

Our shared turbulent histories combined with the internal machinations of a political organisation have lead to the development of the QTU into a modern campaigning union. We are well placed to meet the challenges ahead, though I fear that the challenges will be great and test us sorely.

I wish to end with this note:
“I believe that we stand on the verge of great changes in education. I believe that those changes will affect teachers either for good or ill for many years to come. I believe that this Union in the negotiations that must come with the government must make the best use of the knowledge and the skill in advocacy it possesses.” – campaign statement of Andrew Thomson 55th President of the QTU, June 1944 just after the D-Day landings in Normandy.

My love of history and of this great union was again enlivened when I immersed myself in both in preparation for this speech today. As the 74th President of the QTU and part of the Union’s leadership in these most recent troubled times, I have been invigorated by the knowledge of the shared experiences with our predecessors and empowered by those experiences to redouble my efforts to do what must be done to promote and protect public education and the teaching profession. That is, and must always be, our shared purpose.

In unity is strength; in unity of purpose is power.

Solidarity and happy 125th anniversary.

Kevin Bates
9 January 2014