Covid fallout will be nasty

Branch President Jarvis Ryan

Economic devastation from coronavirus will create pressure for wage and job cuts, making strong unions more important than ever, writes Jarvis Ryan.

Seriously, what a year. Have we ever experienced anything like it?

As I write, life has started to return to normal in the NT. People are breathing a little easier. Businesses are reopening. With the lifting of biosecurity zones, we will soon be able to move around freely, within the Territory at least. Hopefully our borders will reopen sooner rather than later.

For several weeks there in March and April, though, the levels of stress were incredible. We were all trying to adapt to a situation that changed almost daily.

Through it all, our membership and our profession showed dedication and integrity.

Our schools are amazing places. Perhaps more to the point, the people who work in them are. Despite the incredible stress everyone was under, teachers, principals and support staff continued to create a safe space for your students, maintaining routine and a sense of normality in a world turned upside down.

Although were calls in some quarters to close schools, the overwhelming sentiment from members was to ensure there was continuity of education for children.

Even as student attendance declined to historic lows, staff kept turning up every day, working hard to plan for alternate delivery in Term 2.

Some teachers were classified as vulnerable and commenced working from home arrangements. That created additional challenges, but I’ve seen nothing but solidarity from AEU members in terms of how you’ve looked out for one another.

Remote members have done it especially tough, not knowing until very recently when it might be possible to leave your communities for a reprieve.

Your union has tried to be there to support you in a stressful time. We logged more than 100 cases specifically related to COVID-19 and held numerous meetings via Zoom to keep you updated, answer your questions and take on board your concerns. This was union organising in action, ensuring your voice was heard and urgent issues acted on.

This crisis has highlighted the vital role that unions still have to play in our society. The union movement has spearheaded the campaign for job security and safe working arrangements. Having a strong union presence will be even more important as we move into the recovery phase, with mass unemployment and huge government deficits creating pressure for wage and job cuts.

This is an immediate live issue in the Territory with an election just two months away on 22 August and no clarity about the NT Government’s finances. Budgets that were already stretched thin have taken a further huge hit from Covid. We don’t know the full extent of the hit yet, but it will be in the hundreds of millions.

You may recall the Gunner Government has already endorsed harsh measures from the 2018 Langoulant review such as capping annual pay increases at $1000 and restricting back pay in enterprise bargaining. The resulting budget repair plan saw education funding squeezed, in breach of Labor’s promise to increase funding in real terms.

With the economic devastation of recent months, I am very concerned that after the election as we prepare to negotiate a new agreement, we could see wage freezes and job cuts on the table.

The AEU NT is seeking guarantees from all parties contesting the election that education funding will be protected from austerity measures. We will continue to fight for job security for members on contracts, and for the improvements that our schools need such as infrastructure upgrades and additional support for special needs students.

The AEU NT is in a better position than many unions. We have many hard-fought conditions protected in enterprise agreements that can’t easily be taken away. And we have a union presence in towns and communities across the Territory.

I urge you to be active and engaged in this process, before the election – and after. The solidarity you showed during the Covid crisis will need to remain.

This article was first published in the Term 2, 2020 edition of the Territory Educator magazine.