The Teacher Responsibilities guide has teeth

The Teacher Responsibilities Guide must be respected

A win for a member at the Fair Work Commission proves the value of a strong bargaining framework, writes Jarvis Ryan

The AEU NT recently secured a significant victory for a member using the dispute provisions of the teacher enterprise agreement (EA). We were able to show that the maximum contact hours specified in the Teacher Responsibilities Guide had been breached.

In the current EA, the AEU NT successfully negotiated the inclusion of a clause allowing disputes about the application of the Teacher Responsibilities Guide to be referred to the Fair Work Commission for conciliation.

In the view of the Full-Time Officers, the inclusion of the new clause meant that the contents of the guide effectively became part of the agreement.

This was an important win because many of teachers’ working conditions are specified in the guide, including expectations regarding face-to-face instruction, playground supervision duties, length of staff meetings and parent-teacher nights.

In our last bargaining round, a strategic aim of our union was to protect as many working conditions as possible by codifying them in the enterprise agreement (EA).

There are two reasons why we did this. Firstly, once a condition is included in the EA it is difficult for the employer to take it away in the future. Secondly, if a member believes their working conditions are being breached, the union office can lodge a formal dispute on their behalf.

Ideally, disputes will be resolved quickly and amicably by the intervention of departmental officers, but if that fails, we have recourse to the Commissioner for Public Employment and the Fair Work Commission.

We were able to test this in practice with a recent dispute on behalf of a member: a Darwin preschool teacher who was directed by his principal to work more than his maximum contact hours.

Maximum weekly face-to-face instruction time for preschool teachers is 23 hours and 40 minutes.

However, this teacher’s principal designed the preschool timetable such that teachers exceeded their maximum contact hours each week, with 27 contact hours. When he requested that the timetable be changed, the principal refused, claiming that other compensatory measures were in place.

There was a major problem with this defence. Although work arrangements typically allow for some flexibility, a principal does not have the right to unilaterally impose changes to the standard arrangement. There must be genuine consultation between a manager and the employee.

When our member requested the excessive contact hours be reduced, the principal should have complied. The guide states: “A teacher’s face-to-face commitment will not exceed the specified maximum except with the teacher’s agreement.”

However, the principal refused, and when the matter was not able to be resolved at the local level, the union lodged a dispute on his behalf. The member sought compensation for the additional contact hours he had worked, estimated at close to 130 over the year.

The Department initially took the position that the principal’s action was defensible because the member was not required to work more than 36 hours and 45 minutes – a reference to standard public service working hours that do not apply to teachers.

The union escalated the dispute to the Commissioner’s office and ultimately to the Fair Work Commission. The employer acknowledged a breach of our member’s conditions had occurred and agreed to significant compensation in the form of granting additional non-teaching time.

Our member viewed the dispute as a win, as did the Full-Time Officers, because we successfully tested the proposition that working conditions detailed in the Teacher Responsibilities Guide effectively form part of the enterprise agreement.

With the guide currently being reviewed in a joint process between the union and the Department, we will be seeking to ensure more core conditions are protected.

It is vital that we not only secure these conditions in legal agreements, but that we enforce them. This member taking a stand was a win for all members. That’s why I urge you to contact the union office for advice if you believe your working conditions are not being respected.

This article was also published in the Term 3-4, 2020 edition of the Territory Educator magazine.

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