Committee for Public Education public meeting discusses crisis in Australian schools and role of teachers’ unions
The Public Instruction Committee (CFPE) held a public meeting on Sunday, June 19, “The crisis of public instruction, the betrayal of the teachers’ unions and the need for independent rank-and-file committees”. Over 80 participants attended, including educators from the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors, as well as parents and other workers from across Australia and around the world.
The meeting was delivered by prominent CFPE members in Australia and a SEP member and teacher from the United States.
Chairing the event, Patrick O’Connor, a SEP and CFPE member who is also an educator, placed the issues facing teachers in their broader context. He noted that the discussion was the first organized by the CFPE since the election of the Labor government of Anthony Albanese.
O’Connor described the deepening social, economic and political crisis: “Rising inflation is eroding the real wages of the working class, rising interest rates threaten many mortgage holders with losing their homes and ending up in utter destitution, and now the companies privatized power grids are threatening to impose blackouts unless higher profits are guaranteed. The situation is deteriorating rapidly.
The opening report was presented by Sue Phillips, CFPE National Officer and longtime public school teacher. Phillips is also a member of the SEP and sits on its national committee.
Phillips began by giving an overview of the experiences of educators in Australia over the past six months, including the multiple betrayals committed by teachers’ unions. She exposed the political alliance between the Labor Andrews government in Victoria and the Liberal Perrottet government in NSW that forced the reopening of schools amid widespread teachers, parents and community concerns over COVID.
Phillips noted that state governments could not have enforced the reopening without the full complicity of unions, which called off industrial action planned at the start of the school year.
Phillips reviewed the recent sold-out industry deal that saw a massive reduction in real wages for teachers and school workers in Victoria, brokered by the Australian Education Union (AEU) and the state’s Labor government. She explained: “Far from unions representing a collective defense of jobs, wages and conditions, the reality of the situation is the opposite. The union works in full partnership with governments, regardless of political party. It does not unite educators and school workers but divides and isolates them. It does not fight for the improvement of conditions but imposes the diktats of business, organizing defeat after defeat.
Phillips added: “The AEU’s campaign for the deal was not a mistake, weakly conceived or the result of poor negotiating skills, but consciously planned by union bureaucrats. It was intended to impose the demands of the Labor government, block any industrial action and ensure that there was no possibility of a unified struggle with teachers in other states, such as New South Wales or the South Australia. Its objective was above all to straitjacket and silence all opposition, in particular from the CFPE, which the union is fully aware represents the only real politically organized opposition.
The report ended with a call to join and support the International Workers Alliance of Rank-and-File Committees (IWA-RFC). “Lessons must be learned from this immediate experience and decades of betrayals,” Phillips explained. “Teachers and workers need to start taking matters into their own hands. New organizations of struggle must begin to form in the workplace, building a network of rank-and-file committees, independent of the unions.
The second speaker was Carolyn Kennett, a higher education educator and member of SEP and CFPE. Kennett’s report discussed the nationwide impact of the COVID pandemic on schools and families. She explained that late last year, state and federal, Labor and Liberal governments took the criminal decision to lift all health restrictions that were encroaching on the profits and wealth of big business and ultra -rich, regardless of the number of deaths. The opening of schools for face-to-face teaching was a key measure in this framework, aimed at ensuring that workers could be brought back to their workplaces with teachers acting as child minders.
The final report was delivered by Renae Cassimeda from the United States. Cassimeda is a teacher and SEP member in the United States, as well as a writer for the World Socialist Website. She is also a prominent member of the West Coast Educators Rank-and-File Safety Committee, which has fought to mobilize California educators against the COVID threat to teachers and students.
Cassimeda began her report by explaining that she would “speak on the crisis of public education in the United States, its relationship to the whole social and political crisis of capitalism.” She added that “there are a number of parallels to the conditions that exist in Australian state schools. We insist that this is an international phenomenon and requires an international solution.
Cassimeda described unprecedented teacher shortages as millions leave the profession, sweeping cuts in public education funding leading to failing infrastructure, decades of below-inflation pay increases and soaring workloads.
The speaker also spoke about the horrific mass shootings in American schools and their impact on teachers and students. Above all, she explained: “The violence that took place at Robb Elementary School [in the town of Uvalde] is linked to the official violence of the capitalist system and the general indifference to human life and suffering experienced by the masses of young people and the working class by the ruling elite through its policies and politics.
“One of the ways this has been most clearly demonstrated is through the murderous policies of the entire political establishment in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic; the mass infection policies launched by the administration Trump and pursued by the Biden administration.
Cassimeda then discussed the impact of the pandemic on education in the United States and the major role unions have played in forcing teachers into dangerous work environments. She spoke of the importance of committees of grassroots educators across the United States who have consistently opposed the reckless reopening of schools. Cassimeda concluded by explaining, “It is only through a mass movement of the international working class supported by youth to fight against the deep disease of capitalism that we can put an end to these horrors”.
During the reports, a number of participants posted in the chat box, describing their own experiences with COVID and the education crisis. A teacher said: “My school has lost five staff so far and found two to replace them. Learning Support Specialists cover upper grades in which they are not trained in the method, or otherwise there are no covers. COVID means clusters are absent in classrooms making continuity of teaching impossible.
Another added: “I currently have over 100 year 11 and year 12 students who don’t have a teacher for their subject.”
The meeting is open for discussion after the reports. Several important questions were raised about the role of rank-and-file committees and how they might be formed.
Cassimeda answered questions about the growth of rank-and-file committees, saying they were originally created for educators, parents, school staff and other workers to demand protection, the closure of unsafe schools and non-essential businesses, and other emergency measures that were necessary to stop the spread of the virus. Over time, they have grown to discuss public education issues and organize a united struggle to oppose austerity measures, but also to examine broader social and political issues such as the threat of war and its implications for workers.
Phillips added: “The purpose of these meetings is to discuss and resolve these issues, to seek to clarify them for teachers and workers and to advance the development of an understanding within the working class of the need for base committees.
“It’s not about changing the direction of the unions. These organizations are now completely bankrupt for the workers to defend themselves. This is why we say that new organizations must be developed. The Committee for Public Education, established by the Socialist Equality Party, is a rank-and-file committee, spearheading the struggle to develop rank-and-file committees nationwide among educators, parents and the students.
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