Advice for Activists

Advice for Activists

Good morning everybody. My name is Keith Heggart, and I’m an IEU Organiser working in Cumberland and Ku-Ring-Gai. Marilyn asked me to come to the activist conference and tell you a little bit about my journey and share what wisdom I might have learned along the way in the hope of encouraging you all to be both more active but also more effective, too.

The first thing that I should say is that I don’t have the wealth of experience that some of the other activists that you have spoken to do, and nor have I been involved in some of the fantastic campaigns that you have heard about. What I do have is some ideas for how to get the most out of being an activist and getting the most from your members – I’ve found these ideas to be effective in a few different situations, so I hope you will too.

I guess the first place to start is with how I became involved in the union movement. I’m sad to say that, when I was a university student, I wasn’t exactly politically active. In fact, to my eternal shame, I didn’t even join the IEU when I was doing my degree. I had the idea that only bad teachers needed the protection the union could afford, and I was certainly not going to fall into that category. I mention this because you will come across this kind of attitude amongst some teachers and support staff – they’re happy to take the benefits of the work that the union does, but not willing to contribute to the collective efforts of the union. Sometimes it seems like you are talking to a brick wall, but even these can be turned into active union members, given the right set of circumstances.

Shortly after graduation, I went and taught in the UK. It was meant to be a one-year working holiday but in the end it turned into almost 5 years, and it was while I was working there that I started my association with the union movement. The first union I joined was the NASUWT, which is a sister union of the IEU. I would like to say that I was inspired by revolutionary zeal and a thirst for social justice, but I went to my first branch meeting because the secretary of the branch was a friend and he promised me free beer.

Perhaps that should be the first rule for activists: bring food and drink.

Seriously, though, during the 5 years in the UK, I developed a real understanding of what the trade union movement was about. It was a tempestuous time in England – there were increasing demands being placed on teachers in order to drive improvement, including things like performance management, performance pay, observations, inspections and out of school hours professional development. Hmm – does any of that sound familiar? Coming soon to a school near you.

One of my most enduring memories is attending the NASUWT national conference in Birmingham with 8000 other delegates and coming up with a list of 14 tasks that teachers would no longer do, including putting up displays in their classroom, entering data more than once into school systems and undertaking PD outside of school hours.

I expected this to be a long fight, but I was surprised how quickly LEA’s all over the UK capitulated and accepted the NASUWTs position on these tasks. So, my first lesson is this:

LESSON ONE: THERE IS POWER IN A UNION (I promise not all the lessons will be Billy Bragg songs)

More than anything else, we gain our strength from our collective will. A strike isn’t a strike if only one person is taking part in it. Equally, a campaign isn’t a campaign if there are only a few members of staff involved. The only power we have is in our strength in numbers. But when we do act in concert, as I’m sure the Catholic systemic system will next week, it is powerful indeed.

After returning to Australia, I started working in Catholic schools in the Diocese of Parramatta. Needless to stay, the first thing I did was join the IEU. Most recently, I worked at McCarthy Catholic College, Emu Plains, which is just down the road from where we are today. The old rep, Peter Hume, wanted to stand down, and I was fortunate enough to be elected as the Rep.

As soon as I was the new rep, I was swamped with people wanting me to do things for them. Some things weren’t really related to the IEU at all. Some things were much bigger than I could deal with, so I referred them on to our organiser. But some things we were capable of changing.

One of the first victories that I had as a Rep was about lunch breaks. McCarthy had a system where a bell would ring for lunch, and then 27 mins later, music would play for 3 mins, signalling to teachers and students that it was time to move to class. The problem was that this meant that teachers were only getting 27 mins break for lunch – and not the 30 mins that they are entitled to under the Work Practices Agreement.

We passed a motion at a chapter meeting, calling upon the school executive to change the timings and sure enough, teachers were soon getting their 30 min uninterrupted lunch break.

LESSON TWO: START WITH SMALL VICTORIES

You might think that this is a silly thing to argue about, and perhaps you are right. What I saw here was an opportunity to activate the membership at McCarthy – by showing them that, as a chapter, we were capable of getting things done.

The small victories were important because of the next challenge we faced. The Work Practices Agreement stipulates that secondary school teachers in Catholic Systemic schools are only meant to have 10 hours of meetings per term. While we were at McCarthy – and we noticed this across the whole system – these meetings seemed to ‘creep’. Soon, if you added in things like ‘voluntary professional development’ and ‘case management’, teachers could expect to stay behind three or even four afternoons every week. Needless to say, that’s not part of a teacher’s role.

Unfortunately, when we passed a motion to the school executive requesting that the excessive meeting times be curtailed and instead replaced with other forms of communication, we were unable to get much purchase. We heard all the stories – meetings less than 15 minutes long don’t count, faculty meeting aren’t part of it and so on.

As a chapter, we agreed that we would walk out at the next meeting that went over the allotted time. Naturally, this is not something that we wanted to do alone, and I will be honest, it took a bit of courage to stand up when the clock ticked over to 4:30, but I was fortunate that the rest of the chapter followed me out, packed up and went home. it certainly communicated a message about our feelings. This precipitated a meeting with the principal who was forced to take our concerns a little more seriously. Sure enough, next term, the minutes for each meeting were parcelled out precisely to ensure that we didn’t go over the 10 hours.

This is where Lesson Three comes in:

LESSON THREE: TALKING IS GOOD, ACTION IS BETTER

As an activist, we are striving to change things so that they are better for our members. Sometimes, that requires nothing more than discussions. But sometimes, it requires action. That action can be a range of different things creative ideas are often the most effective.

Last year, I became the Branch President for Penrith Blue Mountains, and, as you would know, in Term 2 the Catholic Systemic Campaign really began to ramp up with their pathetic suggestion of an award. I was fortunate enough to speak to the stop-work meeting at Parramatta and following that I was part of the group that presented our petition to Parramatta CEO.

Something that stunned me was the level of apathy and ignorance from some of our members. Here’s another one of my informal rules: become the keeper of the coffee pods. That way, when someone borrows one, you’ve got a chance to have a chat to them about union matters – and if they want the coffee, they can’t escape.

I found myself having a lot of conversation around the coffee machine where people would say to me:

‘What did you think of the proposed EA?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. It doesn’t seem so bad. I never get a 30 minute lunch break anyway’ OR

‘Lots of changes in the new EA.’

‘Is the new EA really that different?’

I couldn’t believe it when I heard it – but I swiftly came to the realisation that, if you were only to read the material distributed by CCER, then you’d probably agree with them. This is where lesson four comes in:

LESSON FOUR: DON’T JUST ACTIVATE, AGITATE

The first step of being an activist is often being an agitator. To get people to take action about particular issues, you need to make them aware of the issues – their annoyance and anger will develop quite naturally from that. So, I recommend starting conversations with statements rather than questions:

‘I can’t believe they’re taking away our uninterrupted lunch break.’

‘What?’

‘And we might have to attend PD during school hours?’

‘What!?!?’

The fifth and final lesson – and one that I’ve continued to employ in my role as an organiser – is all about talking to people. Industrial relations and employment law are complex things – well, they certainly are to this former English and History teacher. The changes suggested in many proposed Enterprise Agreements are often extremely technical, and can only be understood in a context of the previous agreements or the industrial relations context. Fair enough. So how can you, as an activist, encourage people to be involved in their own workplace about matters like this? The answer is something that I like to call Pirate Activism

LESSON FIVE: PIRATE ACTIVISM

The key point is having a ‘hook’ upon which to hang your narrative. Depending on who you are talking to and what you are talking about, it’s important to find something that directly links to their own experiences. In other words, give them a reason to care. I know this sounds like we are building on peoples’ own self-interest – and I make no bones about it, that’s precisely what we are doing – but that’s part of the broader plan of ensuring that they take action to preserve or improve their employment conditions. After all, if they don’t care about it, why should anyone else? If you’re talking to teachers, workload is always an important issue. Support staff probably don’t want to hear about class sizes, but they are very interested in things like first aid allowances.

So there you have it – my five rules for activists. There’s really a sixth rule too – don’t be afraid to seek help from your organizer. We are here to assist you after all – we want to get into schools and talk to people, so let us do that.

Oh, and trust me on the donuts.