An opportunity to accelerate workload reduction
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 125 No 6, 14 August 2020, page no.10-11
Over the past few weeks, QTU members have been left having to deal with COVID-19 in a way that none of us expected – through a pay increase deferral.
What makes the deferral so difficult is that not only have teachers and school leaders been working harder than ever, but none of our usual methods of campaigning or response was going to reverse the decision of the government to change the legislation and an agreement that we had settled only 12 months before.
The government acting as it did undermined one of the fundamental principles that parties of an agreement are held to – “no further claims”.
This principle is the reason that once an enterprise bargaining agreement is reached, changes to working conditions or additional salary increases cannot be pursued for the duration of the agreement (particularly when these matters have been part of negotiations).
It’s not the first time that a Queensland Government has chosen to use legislation to override agreements – Campbell Newman and Jarrod Bleijie led the first modern government to do it - changing the legislation at least seven times to override parts of awards and agreements. It was inexcusable then and is unacceptable now.
The question was how to respond to this situation.
In the weeks before the changes went to Parliament, QTU members campaigned and lobbied their local MPs. This sent a message that teachers and school leaders were angry. However, in the government’s mind, its definition of "the greater good” for Queensland overrode the potential anger of QTU members.
Once the deferral happened, QTU members felt let down. Some wished to demonstrate just how angry and disappointed they were with industrial action in the form of a strike and work bans, and prior to the school holidays it looked as though this was the path down which the Union was heading.
However, over the holidays the government approached they Union –not, as we would have liked, to work out a way to pay the increase, but to recognise that it had changed the industrial landscape and to discuss QTU member priorities and how it might address member concerns.
Let’s be clear, other than getting the pay increase when it fell due, nothing was really going to change the fact that members felt undervalued by a government that had sung their praises during the worst of the first wave of COVID-19 and Queensland’s lock-down. However, when asked what the QTU’s priority was (other than a pay increase), the Union took the opportunity to advance the need for the government, the employer, to address workload.
Discussions centred on issues that members have identified as key contributors to workload, including:
- data (it’s collection, use and purpose)
- school accountability measures
- regional priorities that seek to reinterpret system priorities and add to workload
- regional initiatives that add an additional layer of workload
- annual performance reviews and school reviews
- senior assessment and tertiary entrance
These matters came from a number of sources, including contributions from members and branches on what work bans might look like if the Union was to proceed down that path, and followed years of consultation, including the 2018 QTU workload survey completed by more than 12,000 members, 31 per cent of the total membership.
At the time of the discussions, the police released information about a suite of initiatives the government had explored with them. The majority included similar responses by the government to the workload issues of the police, but it also included a one off $1,250 payment and two weeks of leave.
Unlike QTU members, the police did not receive $1,250 when they reached agreement with the government last year (and the police payment will be capped at the salary that ours was capped at), and unlike teachers and school leaders the right of the police to have holidays had been suspended. This is not unusual for major events – for example during the G20 and the Commonwealth Games police were instructed that they would not be able to take annual leave and in recognition were granted additional leave to their entitlement to six weeks annual leave. The two weeks additional leave recognised that this circumstance was similar – that, except as necessary, annual leave could not be accessed during COVID-19.
In light of the additional police leave, the QTU sought to extend the summer holidays to secure a late return to school in 2021. The government responded with the two additional days' leave at the end of 2020.
As well as the reviews and additional days holiday, the proposal provided protections for temporary teachers seeking permanency and for those teachers on the defined benefits scheme who retire in the next 12 months. This was a matter raised by the QTU as a core issue with the government’s decision to defer the salary increase.
When Executive met at the start of the term, it considered whether it was time to ballot for industrial action or ask members if the government’s proposal was worthwhile working with.
One of the values of the QTU is being member-focused. Knowing that the proposal seeks to address the number 1 priority of members – workload reduction – was a central part of the discussion. Along with the fact that the QTU values being a democratic Union, Executive felt that members should make the decision, with a caveat – if sufficient progress on achieving real reductions in workload had not been made by 22 August, members would be asked to consider industrial action.
Following a membership ballot, the work to negotiate improvements has now begun.
The Union is aware that some members would have preferred to take industrial action. A fundamental principle of the Queensland industrial landscape had been breached, so if we were not going to strike now, when are we? The Union asks members to exercise their power of striking in circumstances where it may affect a change (eg the very threat of a strike led to an offer during EB negotiations). If we were to strike now, nothing would change (except possibly the goodwill QTU members currently have within the community). The legislation that altered the agreement would not be reversed, and the short sharp reviews to address member priorities in relation to workload would cease.
Ultimately, strike action, work bans, reviews etc do not make up for lost salary increases, and we should be clear that accepting the workload reduction package is not an “exchange” for deferred salary increases, and certainly not a precedent for any future EBs. What this package does is provide a mechanism to accelerate the government’s response to the number 1 priority of QTU members – workload reduction.