Youth and Militancy: the NSW Teachers Federation 1970–83

Youth and Militancy: the NSW Teachers Federation 1970–83

Max Taylor

Background to the 1970s

In The ACTU: A Short History, James Hagan explains that, “At the census of 1954 less than 2 per cent of the workforce was unemployed, and for the next 18 years the proportion only once rose above 3 per cent.”1 The early years of the 1970s formed part of that boom. The later years of that decade and the early 1980s, however, were times when unemployment and inflation were significant. Both the boom and the later difficulties affected the nature of Teachers Federation campaigns in the years 1970–83. Over 50% of workers were in unions in the 1970s and union power was significant. Industrial disputes were a regular occurrence.2 The share of national income paid to Australian workers reached its peak in 1975 at 58%. It is now 48%.3 The percentage of teacher unionism was significantly higher than the national figure. Industrial disputes were part of the educational landscape.

The neoliberal blunt instrument approach of destroying public services was preceded in the 1970s by relentless attempts at budget cuts, both federal and state. After 1972 the global economic situation worsened. (Unemployment was over 10% in 1983. Inflation reached a high point of 17% in the mid-1970s.)

Youth culture was strong in the 1970s, flowing on from the same phenomenon in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1974, 46% of the population was under 25 years of age. Many of these young people took advantage of new educational opportunities and entered teaching. Donald Horne noted in relation to the confidence of youth:

This came from a confident generation that had grown up not in an age of depression or war but in a period of previously unimaginable material prosperity whose cult of materialism could seem rather crass, but easy to change. With the new prosperity, the provision of both more and more education and more and more variety in more and more jobs could be taken for granted: there was plenty of safety in risk.4

Young activists amongst these new teachers became increasingly involved in the Federation’s governing bodies. At the local level there were Associations made up of members from schools in a particular geographic locality. TAFE was an exception, as all TAFE teachers were in the TAFE Teachers Association. The Associations sent delegates to the Union’s governing bodies, Annual Conference and the monthly Council meetings. An Executive that met weekly was elected by the Council. There was intergenerational support for industrial action from time to time. However, the new youthful delegates were particularly enthusiastic about taking action to improve working conditions and the quality of education. Worker control was discussed seriously in Federation forums.

An example of the mix of youth and militancy is to be found in the 1976 Warilla High School dispute, discussed later. The school was on strike for a month over a staffing issue. Denis Fitzgerald states in relation to it, “As one of the key leaders of the campaign, Jim Bradley, reflected 25 years after the event: ‘The average age of the teachers was in the low 30s’.”5

Youth was no barrier to progress as an officer in the union. The three women elected to the Women’s Co-ordinator position in the period were all young. My own example demonstrates influence of young members in the Federation. I was a TAFE teacher of General Studies and elected as the first TAFE officer at 25. I would not have been elected if two more senior TAFE officials had chosen to stand. They encouraged and supported me in doing so. In that role I was immediately required to prepare the TAFE Travelling Time Award, referred to below. I also prepared the first TAFE salary award. I was elected as the Industrial Officer at 27. In that position I prepared the school salary case of 1974. The President and I presented the case without lawyers. That was a first for the Federation. In 1975 I was elected General Secretary at the age of 28.

International controversies also contributed to the mood of the times. Mass demonstrations over the Vietnam War, and bans on services to a visiting South African rugby team and other issues occurred. Green Bans set a wonderful example as the Builders Labourers and people in the community, fought to save natural settings and important buildings from being destroyed in the name of profit.

ASIO took an interest in the NSW Teachers Federation in the decades leading up to and including the 1970s, as did the NSW Police Special Branch. I have a copy of my Special Branch File, which runs continuously for 16 years ranging over everything from Moratorium activities through my TAFE teaching at the Police Academy, my years in the Teachers Federation and ending with a demonstration I organised, when I was a 40-year-old law student.

Left-wing politics was a powerful force in the 1970s. I witnessed many debates, some heated, between those who supported various views on Marx, the post-war Keynesian miracle and every form of progressive thinking from the Fabians to Trotsky. The Teachers Club was a wonderful place to be. It should also be made clear that a large section of the membership was conservative or centrist, but loyal to the union.

An organisation being left wing didn’t change the fact that women always have had to struggle to be heard. Feminists in the 1970s continued the work of earlier generations of female teachers. Some examples will make the point. The position of Women’s Co-ordinator was introduced at that time, to which Gail Shelston was first elected. The position was filled by strong and able women throughout the period discussed. In eight months the Women’s Action Program resulted in 350 special Women’s Contacts emerging. In 1975 Barbara Murphy became Senior Vice President and later would be Deputy President in the period to 1983. A successful campaign on maternity leave was run in 1975-76, resulting in various improvements including the concession that the Department would make every effort to put women back into the position they had left. In the early 1980s the combining of the Infants and Primary promotions lists disadvantaged women from the Infants lists because they were to be put at the bottom of the combined lists. The Federation supported three Infants-based women in promotion positions all the way to the High Court in the struggle to change this situation. As a result of that campaign a fairer combining of the lists was introduced.

The Federation’s Aboriginal Education Committee was reconstituted in the 1970s, which affected the union’s thinking about Aboriginal education. In 1975 the Department appointed its first Aboriginal consultant. By 1983 more Aboriginal teachers were being appointed. The Teachers Federation appointed its own full time Aboriginal co-ordinator in the early 1980s.

The final background factor of importance was the first state-wide teacher strike. It occurred in 1968, a year of global activism.Psychologically it changed everything. Commonwealth and state education was increased by an extra $6 million. Three-year training for all teachers was introduced, and new colleges were established at Westmead and Lismore. The Sydney Morning Herald said, “Who can blame the teachers for going on strike? Their one-day stoppage was worth every penny of $250,000 they lost in wages.”6 This action involved a mass meeting at Wentworth Park, which thousands attended. I addressed a number of mass meetings in the following decade, and they became a regular feature of the 1970s and early 1980s.

The First Half of the 1970s

Industrial Action, Salaries and Deregistration

In the early 1970s tension was apparent between the impatient militant youth who wanted industrial action over working conditions, and the whole membership’s need to make use of the Industrial Commission (IC). The issue was made more complex by the fact that the law did not allow a number of working conditions issues to be arbitrated at that time. The Federation used both approaches. Fiery debates over the limits on industrial action caused by the need to have access to the IC were common at Annual Conference, monthly Council meetings and the weekly Executive meetings.

Two examples from the early part of the period make clear the importance of the IC. In 1969 TAFE Teachers achieved an Overtime Award through arbitration in the IC. Hours beyond 30 would now be paid at time-and-a-half. “This award was considered fair by teachers and it settled a very long-standing dispute.”7

The school salary case in 1970 was the longest and most extensive the Teachers Federation ever ran. The result changed the salaries of teachers permanently. It involved 95 days of hearing, 100 Federation witnesses, 252 Federation exhibits, 4,060 pages of transcript and visits to 23 schools. The inflation rate in Australia in 1969-70 was just over 3%. The Interim decision in 1969 provided a 12% increase taking into account economic adjustments since 1967. The final decision in December 1970 was for an additional 14%.8 As Sheldon J noted, “Their numbers are so large that any award materially increasing their salaries must necessarily involve a great sum of money but this fact is not a legitimate barrier to their right to receive remuneration commensurate with their work and its contribution to the welfare of the community.”9

From the late 1960s the Annual Conference Working Conditions resolution became more militant in tone. At the 1970 Annual Conference, schools and Associations were approved to take action on matters which had general application after notifying the General Secretary, without seeking the permission of the Council or Executive.10 This was to be a general assault on the whole system. The resolution was passed again in 1971. Council or executive could call school, area or state-wide strikes if any member was victimised. In mid-1972 it was resolved that no information would be provided to employers that might assist with charges under the Teaching Service Act. Schools began to take industrial action on many matters, including the requirement to take extra periods in high schools when someone was away, and on infant-primary class sizes. At a Special Conference in 1972 a fighting fund was set up to help those “financially disadvantaged by supporting union policy”.11

The Teaching Service Act 1970 provided for all aspects of teacher employment. Those taking industrial action risked being charged with a breach of discipline under Section 37 of that Act.Penalties included caution, reprimand, fine, reduced salary, reduction to a lower classification or position, direction to resign, and dismissal. Industrial action over a range of issues including class sizes, extra periods, travelling time in TAFE, inspections and worker control resulted in charges and other disciplinary action.

Class sizes had been an issue for decades. In 1973 the Principal at Minerva Street School for handicapped children refused to enrol more than 16. He was charged by the Department. Parents supported him, and industrial action followed. At a compulsory conference in the IC before Justice Sheldon, the charges were dropped and all special classes reduced to maximum of 18 and minimum of 15.

Canterbury Bankstown Association took strike action over secondary class sizes in 1973. Action followed in other schools. In 1975 the Federation’s Council set maximums that no school was to exceed. The NSW Coalition government said it was its objective that no class need exceed 30 by 1980. Finally, Eric Bedford, a fine Education Minister in the 1976 Labor government, was able to convince the Cabinet to reduce Year 7 classes to 30 and junior secondary classes to 32. Disadvantaged School class sizes were reduced even further. The campaign continued into the 1980s.

A NSW government announcement that in 1971 all secondary teachers would be required to take an extra period was met with a secondary school strike and the threat of another one. The proposal was dropped. In 1972 hundreds of teachers refused to take extra periods when someone was away.

Inspections were the way to promotion at that time. They also took place in relation to teacher performance. They were resented and resisted by many as unprofessional and oppressive. Council endorsed members refusing to be inspected and demanded an end to inspections. The Manly Teachers Association took up the challenge. Teachers were charged under the Teaching Services Act, and threats of strikes on the day of the hearings led to proceedings in the IC. An organiser was arrested in 1971 when she refused to leave a school, but the magistrate dismissed the case. In early 1972 a young teacher activist charged by the Department over refusal of duty was suspended. He went back to school demanding to teach, and the police were called. Ultimately he was reinstated.

When the secretary of the Illawarra Teachers Association was questioned by an inspector about his Federation activities in 1971 a mass meeting occurred and there were calls for further action. Two thousand teachers and other trade unionists marched through Wollongong in support of teachers charged under the Act. The secretary of the Illawarra Teachers Association was charged in relation to alleged intimidating behaviour in his Federation activities, which resulted in the South Coast Labour Council becoming involved, with wider action proposed by other trade unionists. The teacher received a reprimand.12

The 1971 Annual Conference agreed to support technical teachers who refused to travel between colleges without time allowances. They were mainly young women newly appointed to teach fashion and secretarial studies.

Teachers in the Western Area decided to act on the issue, and stopped work after completing thirty hours of teaching, incidental work and travelling. The Public Service Board suspended Jim Tynan, Teacher of Plumbing at Dubbo, and threatened to charge all other teachers involved in the stoppage. In response to this action by the Board the Federation organised a state wide stoppage of teachers for March 8, 1972.13

A compulsory conference on 3 March resulted in agreement on an award hearing. The Crown Employees (Teachers) Travelling Compensation Award provided for an hourly rate based on all time beyond home to home college and return, and included waiting time beyond one hour.14The campaign as a whole involved a combination of use of the IC and industrial action.

In 1973 a government decision not to employ all available teachers resulted in an Unemployed Teachers Committee being set up, run by young unemployed teachers. A campaign led to 230 teachers getting employment, though many others did not.


In April 1973 the Public Service Board (PSB) decided to combat the militancy by applying for deregistration of the Federation. At the first hearing the Federation relied on a technical legal argument, but was unable to stop the matter proceeding.15 The Federation made its defiance clear by placing information about each school taking industrial action in the Federation journal Education. The IC responded by adjourning the hearing of the TAFE teachers’ salary case which was the key to all salaries in that year. Tension grew within the Federation as to how to deal with the issues.

In May the matter of deregistration came back to the IC. The Judgment stated, “It must be obvious that if such direct action remains the mainspring of the Federation’s policies, the duty of the Commission constituted by that Act to give effect to its purposes is to cancel the Federation’s registration.” The Federation was given from 23 May to 22 June to file an affidavit signifying a change of approach or it would be deregistered.16

On 26 May Council called a Special Conference for 7 July. The Minister announced extra money and the Conference empowered Council to call off action if ‘major reforms’ were guaranteed. I supported the Federation continuing with its industrial action at the Conference. The PSB announced that when a primary/infants teacher was absent, a relieving teacher would be employed immediately. In high schools a relieving teacher would be employed after one day’s absence. The improvements in working conditions were regarded by a number of people, including me, as enough to constitute ‘major reforms’. There was also concern about the TAFE salaries case which would not be completed if the Federation was deregistered, as the Federation was hoping to flow the result on to school teachers. These factors were enough to convince a number of people, including me, that action should be suspended. After heated debate at a Council meeting, direct action was suspended.Over PSB objections and despite the threat of strike action over salaries, the IC dismissed the deregistration application on 2 November 1973.17

When deregistration didn’t take place, the NSW government in the mid-1970s stopped preference for Federation members in employment. It had already stopped deducting union fees through the payroll system in 1973. Preference in employment was restored by the Labor government in 1976.

1973 TAFE Teachers Salary Case

As mentioned above, part of the division within the Federation about deregistration concerned the risk that the TAFE teachers’ first ever salary award case might be stopped. The 1970 schools case had covered a vast array of issues. Maintaining the real gains made then would be a constant problem through the 1970s. Inflation had grown to 9.1% in 1973 and would rise to 15.8% in 1974. A number of people, including myself, argued that it would be better to put a TAFE salary case on first and attempt to gain a flow-on to schools. At the time there were only 2,800 TAFE teachers, so the strategy involved risk. The Federation agreed to this approach. I was the officer given the job of preparing the case.

There was agreement on salary structure beforehand (the 14-point salary scale with varying starting points was reduced to 12 steps). Nearly 50 witnesses or witness statements were provided. The result was 12% for those teachers at various points on the salary scale. Those at the top of the scale received 13.6%, and 14% was gained for those in promotion positions such as Head Teacher. As anticipated, there was a flow-on of the salaries component to school teachers.18

1974 Salary Case

Inflation stood at 15%, unemployment was rising and internationally the economic world according to Keynesian theory was beginning to struggle. Maintaining the salary achievement of 1970 was becoming more difficult, though salaries increased in some other states. Negotiations over salaries took place in the second half of 1973, but failed. Governments (federal and state) were cutting back on public service funding. A 24-hourstrike over salaries took place in NSW on 15 September 1974. Another was threatened for 10 October. Once again, the arbitration system allowed for a resolution following the industrial action.

President Eric Pearson and I presented the salaries case. It was the first time the Federation had not involved lawyers in the presentation of a major arbitration hearing. The claim favoured the lowest-paid workers, which included many young teachers, by calling for a percentage plus an allowance in dollar terms rather than a straight percentage. The decision resulted inthe 11-step salary scale becoming 9 for two and three-year trained teachers, a 20% salary increase for all teachers, 22% for principals, and allowance increases of 19%. It was regarded as a success. As a result the Federation began using its officers to present other arbitration cases.19

The Federal Labor Government 1972–75

Gough Whitlam in The Whitlam Government states, “The most intense political debate in Australia in the 1960s was not about Vietnam; it was about education. It was a debate which embodied, expressed and exemplified much of the best and the worst of more than a century of Australia’s political, constitutional, social, economic and religious history.”20

The teacher unions made submissions in relation to Schools in Australia, Report of the Interim Committee for the Australian Schools Commission, May 1973, (otherwise known as the Karmel Report). At paragraph 6.50, the report dealt with recurrent funding of eight categories of non-government schools. It stated, “Category A schools already use a volume of resources that well exceed the 1979 targets; and the Committee believes that the government assistance to these schools cannot be justified … Hence the gradual phasing out of assistance over 1974 and 1975 is recommended.” State aid to private schools, particularly the wealthiest ones, would become an increasingly bitter issue in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

TAFE and the Kangan Report 1974

I recall being part of the team that made a submission on behalf of the Federation. The report emphasised the UNESCO Report, Learning to Be, and the need to break down barriers to access to education – recognising the needs of the whole person was the aim. Grants were recommended for curriculum, library resources and specialist staff, public awareness campaigns, counselling, capital works planning and expanded recurrent education to provide greater access to vocational courses.

Between 1972-73 and 1975-76 the federal Whitlam Labor government increased funding for public schools by 677.5%. In the same period private school funding was increased by 117%. Federal grants to TAFE rose from $18.1 million in 1972–73 to $81.1 million in 1975–76.21 Disadvantaged groups such as Aboriginal students were specifically dealt with. The increase in funding was recognised by the teacher unions as a mighty achievement. It wasn’t to last. The dismissal of the Whitlam government led to funding cutbacks in the years that followed. As Gough Whitlam observed, This shift towards equality was halted and then reversed during the Fraser years. The hegemony of the elite private schools was restored as their per capita grants increased at a rate greater than those paid to either government schools or less affluent private schools”.22 The federal government also backed away from the Kangan recommendations. By 1977 the Federation felt the need to call a conference on the Crisis in Technical and Further Education, which was addressed by the NSW Director General of TAFE.

Education Commission

The Federation had long campaigned for an Education Commission “to govern educational policy across the system and to provide teacher input to key deliberations”.23 It was eventually formed by the state government, but at a time when economic conditions were becoming tougher both globally and locally. Teachers, parents and others ably represented the various groups involved in the education system. However, as Denis Fitzgerald says: “At length the Education Commission was formed but the hopes for it by the Federation were eventually dashed. The Department remained the pre-eminent force in policy and advice to the Minister while the Government itself set little store in the Commission’s capacities.”24

The Second Half of the 1970s


A report on the State Superannuation Scheme attracted my interest in 1976. A massive amount of money was being invested, and teachers made up a significant share of the scheme’s members. It seemed reasonable to insist on full-time representation on the Board and some movement in investment policy from the building of high-rise offices to socially-beneficial activity such as housing. After discussing the matter within the union I announced those demands. It was soon clear that big business didn’t agree with my suggestions. That had the effect of increasing my interest in the matter.

On 7 July 1976 a meeting of the Combined Public Service Unions declared that it, “condemns the current investment policy of the State Superannuation Board which unduly favours the private sector, in particular its policy of providing loans for unnecessary city office buildings”. It also declared that one of the contributor representatives should be full-time. With the backing of the BWIU we saw the premier.

The campaign was a success. A full-time member of the Board was ultimately achieved. Later in Education I wrote, “It is pleasing that in the 1976/7 Budget of the Superannuation Board the percentage of funds going to housing has increased from 13% to 23%. This is not enough but is a step in the right direction.”

Warilla High School

In 1976 Warilla High School, south of Wollongong and the steel works, had Disadvantaged School funds available to it, and many students who were the children of workers. It also had a reserve science teacher who the school had reason to expect would be made a member of the permanent staff. The announcement on 10 February that the teacher was to be transferred was seen by the staff as a classic example of the indifference of ‘the system’ to the needs and aspirations of working people. The teachers resolved to go on strike in protest. Students in examination years were taught outside school hours. $11,000 was raised from voluntary donation by 10 March. Sydney teacher associations also began to contribute.

The dispute became a test of resolve over the state-wide staffing formula, and both sides dug in.For the first eight days, 73 of 77 teachers at Warilla were on strike. By 13 days that number had become 55. By the time strike ended after a month (10 February – 9 March), there were 40 on strike.

A compulsory conference before three members of the IC took place on 3 March. The Federation had asked South Coast Labour Council Secretary Merv Nixon to come and explain how the parents saw the matter, but the IC refused to hear from him. It seemed to me that it would be ratting on the union movement to now ignore him! I informed the three IC members if they were not going to hear from Mr Nixon, then we were leaving. After a number of observations about my behaviour they shut the proceedings down. I still remember being deeply concerned that I had endangered the chances of a satisfactory outcome.

Denis Fitzgerald explains the atmosphere in the Illawarra during this ongoing dispute.

The union movement across the Illawarra also rendered sustained support. The Industrial Commission ordered the strikers to return to work but the strike continued. The Federation walked out of the Commission. The main street of Wollongong was closed due to a school student march echoing the goals of their teachers. Maritime workers stopped work in support. It was for their children and those of their community that this dispute was being conducted.25

The solidarity amongst trade unionists reached its peak when I was informed by a representative of the South Coast Labour Council that if the teacher didn’t stay at Warilla, Port Kembla would shut. My spirits lifted.

Discussions did reopen with the PSB. In the end the science teacher stayed as part of an overall settlement.

The 18:12 Campaign in TAFE

There was much discussion in the increasingly difficult late-1970s of the need to reduce the hours of work for all people.The Federation campaigned for reduced hours for TAFE teachers. In 1977 the amount of teaching time and non-teaching time at colleges varied according to what was being taught. General Studies and Certificate teachers were on 18 hours of teaching and 12 hours of preparation. Trade, Secretarial Studies and Fashion teachers were on ratios of 24:6 or 22:8. The Federation wanted 18:12 for all.

In 1978–79 discussions in TAFE Department and Teachers Federation working parties resulted in reductions by two hours. Those doing teacher training were to get another 2-hour reduction. The Federation persisted in its demand for 18:12. A hearing in the IC failed to achieve that result.

Tension then began to escalate. The government announced there would be no further reductions. The Federation called on members to refuse to teach beyond 18:12. Principals were ordered to stand down those who refused. Teachers were stood down.

On Saturday 26 July a massive meeting of TAFE teachers resolved on a ban on all overtime from 4 August 1980. The IC decided that 15 trade schools would be reduced to 20:10 from the beginning of 1981.26 The decision was upheld on appeal. The overall result was that hours were now in two groups: 20:10 and 18:12. It was a significant improvement from the position in 1977, but not a total success.

The Early 1980s

The Salaries Campaign of 1980–81

I returned to teaching in TAFE in the years1980-81.Jennie George became the first female General Secretary of the NSW Teachers Federation. Barry Manefield was the President in that period.

Wage and condition increases became much harder to achieve at that time. National and state wage indexation guidelines had been introduced in the mid-70s. In addition,neoliberalism had emerged as the dominant ideology in the new global order, promoting small government and increased emphasis on the private sector, and individual rather than collective activity.

Public school teachers could be expected to be angry in such times, and they were. In 1980, 1,600 infants and primary teachers met at the Regent Theatre. They proposed to Annual Conference that teachers should refuse to do certain things unless more clerical staff were employed and more time provided to complete tasks not directly involved in teaching. The Quality Education campaign produced action. Central Coast teachers undertook other duties in a program organised to involve 20% of minimum supervision so those duties could be done. Salary deductions occurred for those involved on the basis that they were not carrying out their duties as prescribed by the Teaching Service Act. The IC upheld the departmental position.

In 1980 the Federation lodged a work value case with the IC, seeking a 20% salary increase. Witness statements and an emphasis on issues such as disadvantaged schools, migrant education, curriculum changes, multicultural education, community languages and technological changes for TAFE teachers were enough to meet the wage indexation tests that there had to be a “significant net addition to work requirements”. A 4.3% interim increase was achieved.27 In the main hearing the wage index guidelines were a major consideration in relation to what the IC could provide. The interim increase had been adjusted by two quarterly adjustments before the final decision. A further 2.5% was provided.

Teachers were unhappy with the result. In early 1981 state-wide strike action took place on two occasions. Industrial action over staffing and class sizes had recommenced. Demands over those issues formed part of the resolution passed at a mass meeting.

The situation was resolved by the Minister for Industrial Relations referring the matter to the IC in accordance with a provision in the Industrial Arbitration Act which allowed consideration of whether the award was, “appropriate in all the circumstances of the case having regard to the totality of the evidence and material…”. After considering the evidence and wage indexation restrictions the Full Bench concluded:

There had been changes in the nature of school population, changes in society and society’s attitude about schools and teachers and changes in schools and in the education system itself, contributing overall to a substantial change in the duties and responsibilities of teachers constituting a significant addition to work requirements.28

The IC awarded 5.7%, thus making a total of 10%.

Arbitration in the IC proved invaluable to the Federation in 1981 when aLocality Allowance was achieved for teachers expected to go to relatively isolated places. There were 270 schools in the survey undertaken as part of the preparation of the claim. Issues included the right allowances for climate, isolation, marital status, motor vehicle costs, medical costs and other matters.29

The Struggle to Defend Public Education in 1982–83

I returned to the Federation as President at the beginning of 1982. The struggle over the erosion of resources for public education would be a major issue in the period 1982–83. The federal and state governments continued to provide significant funding to private schools. The percentage increases, on occasions, exceeded that provided to public schools. Falling infants and primary enrolments added to the pressure to campaign to achieve a staffing breakthrough. ‘Fight the Cuts’ became our call for action over staffing, class sizes, and maintenance.

Part of the erosion of quality in public education was the elimination of a range of consultancies (the people who advised teachers about the best way to do certain things) and the destruction of the special swimming program. Tactics used to reverse these decisions varied, but didn’t back away from the emotive if necessary; in the case of three music consultants involved in planning the arts education studio that catered for 20,000 students a year, the media proved powerful. Photos of children playing musical instruments outside the Opera House combined with an explanation of what was being lost sent a powerful message. Soon after that event the music consultancy was restored.

Public meetings, mass meetings, threats of industrial action and media articles about the risk of children drowning saw a reversal of the decision to remove the 200 casual special swimming teachers.

Relief from Face-to-Face Teaching for Infant and Primary Teachers

For years the Federation had been seeking two hours of relief from face-to-face teaching for infants and primary teachers. Its achievement would also create more employment. In 1982 it was promised but never eventuated. For it to be achieved in 1983 would require widespread industrial action. Infants and primary teachers had always supported the Federation’s state-wide action involving all members. They had also taken industrial action at school level. The question of whether they would go on a state-wide strike alone was a contentious issue in the Federation.

I addressed 600 infants and primary teachers at the Sydney Town Hall.There was strong support for the Federation over the matter. Individuals were also persuasive in convincing me that such strikes would be successful. Federation’s governing bodies supported strike action.

Two highly successful state-wide one-day strikes occurred in August and September 1983.Seven thousand teachers attended a mass meeting at Wentworth Park. The meetings made clear that the members would supportmore strikes if necessary. The campaign continued. A meeting with the Premier on 16 December led to a letter confirming that relief from face-to-face teaching would be phased-in over the following years. In the first step, 110 infants and primary teachers would be provided for the smaller group, Class 3 and Class 4 schools. The letter also provided for 100 special education teachers, 100 librarians, 13 Aboriginal teachers, ancillary staff (85 general assistants and23 special education teachers’ aides) and cash grants for schools.

Accelerated Promotion for Country Service

The decline in infant and primary enrolments also affected promotion opportunities. In country areas it added to tension with feminists over what was known as accelerated progression. At the time, gaining list placement could be accelerated by taking positions that didn’t attract candidates. The result was better pay, status and promotion. The opportunity was overwhelmingly taken up by men because the reality of society in 1983 was that women didn’t have the same level of flexibility.

After major debates the Federationresolved to change the system and remove the unfair advantage to men over women. Angry meetings in country areas followed. Deputy President Barbara Murphy took the lead and attended many of the meetings. She did a magnificent job. Ultimately this divisive issue was resolved by the Department dropping the whole system and moving to a promotion system based on merit.

Dover Heights

Ever more generous funding to private schools was opposed vigorously by the Federation. A combined teacher and parent rally at the Town Hall on 24 August 1982 was attended by 1,400 people. A march through the city followed.30

In July 1982 it was announced that Dover Heights Boys High School would be sold. Enrolments had been falling. There was a federal government proposal to allow private schools to lease or buy public schools and Dover Heights was to be handed to a private school. Dover Heights Girls High school was to be ‘improved’ to take the boys. The building program, with the inevitable noise, began. Staff at both schools put up a magnificent fight through action in 1982.

The Federation resolved to oppose the handing over of the school. A thousand Delegates at the 1982 Annual Conference were bussed to the school. At the Annual Conference, I said, “I can tell you this: if they have to drag us out, then Dover Heights will be an issue, which in the dragging out, and the publicity which follows it, will never be forgotten and I hope never repeated.”31

A 24-hour picket line was set up. That put the onus on other unions not to cross it. Things began to heat up. The Premier declared the government wouldn’t be intimidated. A demonstration took place outside the Premier’s office. The police were present. We failed to get a meeting with the Premier.

On 25 April a meeting of parents, students and teachers took place at the school. Commitment to continuing the fight remained strong amongst the parents. A significant proportion of the media coverage was sympathetic. The Premier met the parents and indicated that the school would remain public until the end of the year. That did not resolve the fundamental issue. The October meeting of Federation Council resolved to occupy the school if there was any attempt to hand it over.

Finally, in December it was announced that Dover Heights would become a TAFE College.

Looking Back

It was a great honour to be associated with the Federation in the years from 1970 to 1983. Carrying out the research for the Federation Centenary speech and this article provide a reminder of how many wonderful idealists I met during that time. It was a period when the passion of youth combined with a belief in militant action to aim for a fairer world. It is appropriate that I finish with the last verse of Henry Lawson’s “The Army of the Rear”, written when he was 21!

The wealthy care not for our wants, nor for the pangs we feel;
Our hands have clutched in vain for bread, and now they clutch for steel!
Come men of rags and hunger, come! There’s work for heroes here!
There’s room still in the vanguard of the Army of the Rear!
Tramp! tramp! tramp!
O men of want and care!
There’s glory in the vanguard of the “Army of the Rear!”.32


  1. James Hagan, The ACTU: a Short History, Reed, 1977, p. 69.
  2. Graph 6.63 “Industrial Disputes” and graph 6.67 “Trade Union membership”, in 1301.0 Year Book 2006, Australian Bureau of Statistics.
  3. Matt Wade, “A Shrinking Slice of the Pie,” Sydney Morning Herald, 4-5 August, 2018, p. 27 (quoting material provided by the Centre for Future Work).
  4. Donald Horne, Time of Hope, Australia 1966-72, Angus and Robertson, 1980, p. 42.
  5. Denis Fitzgerald, Teachers and Their Times, UNSW Press, 2011, p. 25.
  6. John O’Brien, A Divided Unity, Allen and Unwin, 1987, p. 145.
  7. Bert Hilling, Teacher Feedback, vol. 7, no. 2, July 1979, p. 9.
  8. Crown Employees (Teachers – Department of Education) Award. 1970 Industrial Arbitration Reports, NSW, p. 345.
  9. Ibid., p. 521.
  10. “Working Conditions” resolution, Education, 3 February, 1971, p. 7.
  11. O’Brien, op. cit., p. 167.
  12. O’Brien, op. cit., pp. 160-168.
  13. Bert Hilling, Teacher Feedback, vol.7, no. 2, July 1979, P. 10.
  14. Crown Employees (Teachers) Travelling Compensation Award. 1972 Industrial Arbitration Reports, NSW, p. 403.
  15. Re NSW Teachers Federation (No 1) April 19, 1973, Industrial Arbitration Reports, NSW.
  16. Re NSW Teachers Federation (No 2) May 23, 1973, Industrial Arbitration Reports NSW.
  17. Re NSW Teachers Federation (No 4) 2 November 1973, Industrial Arbitration Reports NSW, p. 564 at 565-6.
  18. Re Crown Employees (Technical Teachers) Award. 3 December 1973, Industrial Arbitration Reports, NSW, p. 655.
  19. Crown Employees (Teachers, Department of Education) Award 1974, Industrial Arbitration Reports, NSW, p. 610.
  20. Gough Whitlam, The Whitlam Government, 1972-1975, Penguin Books, 1985, p. 291.
  21. Ibid., p. 327.
  22. Ibid., p. 322.
  23. Fitzgerald, op. cit., p. 23.
  24. Ibid,. pp. 42-43.
  25. Ibid., p. 25.
  26. Teachers in Technical Colleges Hours Case (No 1), 1980 Industrial Arbitration Reports, NSW, p. 486.
  27. In Re Crown Employees, Teachers, Department of Education and Technical and Further Education, 1980 Industrial Arbitration Reports, NSW, p. 132.
  28. In Re Crown Employees (Teachers) Award Reference, 1981 Industrial Arbitration Reports, NSW, p. 218.
  29. In re Crown Employees (Teachers, Locality Allowance) Award, 1981 Industrial Arbitration Reports, NSW, p. 1017.
  30. Education, 13 September, 1982, p. 3.
  31. “Max Taylor’s address to Conference ‘82”, Education, 1 February, 1983, p. 5.
  32. Henry Lawson, “The Army of the Rear”, in A Camp-fire Yarn, Henry Lawson, Complete Works, 1885-1900, Lansdowne, Sydney, p. 47.