1993: Striking to stop the cuts

The year 1989 had been a watershed year for the Union. For a decade leading up to it, we had campaigned at grassroots level for better funding for schools to reduce class sizes and costs to parents, and for better wages, as part of a federal strategy.

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This had made education a vote-shifting issue for the first time, and both sides of politics felt the pressure. In the lead up to the state election, the Ahern government made a spectacular wages offer (which Labor promised to honour if it won), and the Goss opposition promised to bring spending on Queensland schools up to the national average.

Sure enough, after the election we got both… although not without some further difficulties.

So when the Goss ALP state government published an “interim budget statement” in 1993 containing a number of draconian and unnecessary cuts, including the removal of 500-600 secondary teachers, the sense of anger was amplified by disappointment that such hard-won gains could be so easily abandoned. At the time, 11 per cent of secondary classes were already oversized. The proposed cuts would have at least doubled that number.

The QTU reacted strongly and a statewide 24 hour strike, the first in 11 years, was called for 5 August 1993, to send a strong message to the government and to focus public attention on the issues. For many members it was the first experience of industrial action on such a scale. Schools were closed across the state and more than 10,000 teachers attended mass meetings at Brisbane’s Festival Hall and centres across Queensland, the largest most had ever seen.

In the wake of the action, the state government modified its intentions and the eventual cuts were not anywhere near as severe as had been proposed, the result of which was that teacher numbers were maintained over the next few years.

What was particularly memorable about the strike was that it was about hanging on to things that we’d already won in previous campaigns, and that’s what made teachers so passionate.

It also has to be seen in the context of a broader government policy towards public services. There had been railway closures, cuts to health and a whole series of other cuts proposed - we were just one of a series. The strike made it clear to the government of the time that this was not on; that the days of economic rationalism were over. For whatever budget reason, imagined or real, the solution is not to just put the knife to public services and think that it is okay. It is not okay, and I think that message has been a consistent one ever since.

We reaffirmed that issues around teacher numbers, class sizes and conditions - things that we fought hard for over a 15 to 20 year period - were persistent issues for us, and we were not going to let go of them. It sent a very strong signal.

Mary Kelly
Former QTU President, Life Member

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 119 number 2, 125th Anniversary Special Edition, p16-17


 

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