Reds at the blackboard: Militancy in the teacher unions

by Tess Lee Ack • Published 15 February 2021

In recent years, teacher unions have not been noted for their militancy. Successive rounds of enterprise bargaining in many states have come and gone without any strikes, despite far from satisfactory outcomes. The Queensland Teachers Union, for example, has not held a statewide strike since 2009. In some states, one-day strikes have taken place but then any follow-up action has been called off. This is not because of any lack of issues confronting teachers – excessive workloads, poor pay, decrepit infrastructure and standardised testing to name a few. State leaderships have not wanted strikes beyond token stoppages and branch structures provide very limited opportunities for rank-and-file members to challenge them. The COVID crisis is just the latest example of the lack of a fighting lead in the union.

In the early days of the pandemic, state leaderships were slow to call for school closures, despite their members’ concerns – expressed in motions and petitions from individual school union branches and social media platforms – for their own and their students’ safety. In Melbourne, in response to the “second wave” of the virus that saw 87 schools forced to close after outbreaks, the Australian Principals’ Federation called for school closures on 28 July.[1] On the same day, the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union (AEU) sent a statement to members noting that the government had “failed to genuinely support the health and safety of staff”, and making other valid criticisms.[2] But – no doubt determined to maintain its cosy relationship with the Labor government – it still stopped short of calling for a full shutdown, instead just requesting “more flexibility” at the school level, and urging members to contact their state Labor MP to express their concerns.[3]

But teacher unions have not always lacked militancy. In this article I will revisit some of the high points of struggles by government school teachers to improve the public education system as well as their wages and conditions. In some cases these struggles were facilitated by left-wing union leaderships; in others, militants had to contend with hostility from the officials. But either way, teachers’ campaigns owed much to the grass-roots leadership and organisational ability of rank-and-file union members, with socialists often playing a key role. A comprehensive history of militancy in the teacher unions is well beyond the scope of this article. Instead it will focus on a few highlights that illustrate what is possible when rank-and-file workers organise and fight.


In 1856, the Education Commissioners of New South Wales wrote of teachers:

His [sic] material reward is [a] state of poverty and misery; and his only distinction is to be a member of a profession despised by all around.[4]

This reflected teachers’ perceived position in society and the nature of their work during the nineteenth century. On the one hand, teachers were seen as moral guardians who were supposed to set and enforce standards, and conform to middle-class notions of respectability in dress and behaviour. Women were particularly constrained in this area. Teachers were expected to observe and instil respect for authority and the social hierarchy. On the other, they were mostly paid low wages and worked in substandard accommodation with minimal resources. And teachers were forbidden to express political opinions or engage in political activity.

In the late nineteenth century, teacher associations emerged around the country, and these evolved into unions in the early twentieth century. For example, in 1918 the Public School Teachers’ Association of New South Wales, which had been operating since 1898, combined with several smaller sector associations to form the NSW Public School Teachers’ Federation, which by 1920 covered 78 percent of teachers employed by the Department of Education. The State School Teachers Union of Victoria was formed in 1886 and quickly gained 50 percent membership in government schools; it was succeeded by the Victorian Teachers Union (VTU) in 1926. The formation of unions was crucial as teachers fought to transform the sector.

Teacher unions campaigned to raise standards of teacher training and education, to increase the often pitiful resources put into public education, and for a more progressive curriculum. They insisted that these issues were inextricably linked to the fight for higher wages, adequate staffing levels and decent working conditions. So teacher organisations have always had a dual character as both professional associations and trade unions.

This dual role often created tensions within teacher organisations. Conservative elements opposed industrial action of any kind as being “unprofessional”; they resisted identification with the wider trade union movement and argued that teacher organisations should confine themselves to educational matters and advancing the status of the profession. These attitudes often went hand in hand with terrible sectionalism, such as attempts to maintain divisions and pay differentials between men and women, primary and secondary teachers, and so on. In some cases, this sectionalism led to splits and the fragmentation of teacher unions into smaller sector organisations.

Early militancy

The first recorded teachers’ strike took place in WA in 1920.[5] From its establishment in 1898 until 1912, the State School Teachers’ Union of Western Australia (SSTUWA) saw itself largely as an advocate for improving the quality of education and developing an efficient educational system; it enjoyed a good relationship with the Education Department. But relations soured under the impact of worsening economic conditions, World War I and its aftermath and rising living costs. Teachers’ wages were actually cut by 7.98 percent in 1915. In 1917, the SSTUWA joined with other public sector unions in a Grand Council of Affiliated Public Services to fight for their common interests. Continued government intransigence saw teachers vote overwhelmingly (892 to 30) to approve strike action to achieve higher wages and establish an independently chaired board to hear appeals on salaries, increments and grievances. In 1920, a mass meeting of teachers and members of the Civil Service Association issued an ultimatum demanding a 33.3 percent pay rise and the establishment of an appeals board. On 10 July, with the government having offered only minor concessions, teachers and public service workers went on strike. They stayed out for 18 days, only returning to work when all their demands had been met.

During the period after World War I, a minority of teachers, like other sections of the Australian working class, were drawn to progressive and radical ideas and influenced or inspired by the Industrial Workers of the World and the Russian Revolution.[6] The formation of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in October 1920 was a significant development, and by the 1930s it was building a powerful presence in the trade union movement. The party was by this time thoroughly Stalinised, and communist parties around the world had become tools of the USSR’s foreign policy rather than organisations fighting for working-class emancipation.[7] Nonetheless, the CPA numbered many genuine militants in its ranks.

During the Great Depression workers, including teachers, faced serious attacks. In an attempt to organise workers to resist the attacks, the CPA launched the Militant Minority Movement in the late 1920s.[8]

In Sydney in 1931 the CPA formed the Educational Workers’ League (EWL) to help coordinate resistance when the NSW Teachers Federation leaders would not. The League openly stated its objective as “the abolition of Capitalism and the establishment…of a Workers’ Socialist Commonwealth based on the ownership and control of the means of production by the organised working class”.[9] Its members were also active in the anti-fascist and anti-war movements, and women played a leading role. Federation historian Bruce Mitchell describes the EWL as somewhat more moderate than the Militant Minority Movement – less ultra-left and more accommodating to “social fascists”, in defiance of the party line.[10]

The EWL argued that improvements for teachers could only be won by an active rank and file, not through cosy negotiations with ministers and department heads. They deplored the presence of headmasters in the Federation, correctly believing that they dominated the organisation to the detriment of the majority of teachers.[11] They considered splitting from the Federation to form a more radical organisation, but according to Mitchell decided not to after reading Lenin’s polemic against ultra-leftism, Left-wing communism: an infantile disorder.[12] This was also in line with CPA policy, which was generally opposed to the formation of “red unions”. So the EWL remained with the Federation as a ginger group. Their numbers were small, in the dozens, though boosted by defections from the ALP when the Lang Labor government cut public sector wages. But despite their small size, they punched above their weight. They published a popular and influential journal, the Educational Worker, which had a circulation well beyond their own ranks. It was largely through the EWL that the CPA established long-term influence in and, at times, leadership of the Federation.

The EWL argued for rank-and-file militancy and cooperation with other public sector unions, and sought to include educational workers other than teachers, holding out “the hand of working-class unity to school cleaners and gardeners”.[13] They also advocated radical educational philosophies. For example, they called for syllabus reform to “give due emphasis to the struggles and aspirations of the working class and the colonial masses”, the abolition of exams that “sterilised knowledge and distorted education”, as well as homework, weekly tests, religious education and corporal punishment. The Educational Worker included a column called “The Lies We Teach”, covering issues such as European imperialism, the true character of national icons and ruling-class figures such as the Wentworths, etc.[14]

In the early 1930s, the EWL led a successful campaign in defence of Beatrice Taylor, a Sydney teacher who had been victimised for her political opinions and activity. Sponsored by the EWL, Taylor had been part of a Friends of the Soviet Union delegation that visited Russia in 1932. On her return, she wrote several articles about the experience in the Educational Worker, and spoke at over 70 meetings. In November, following a public meeting presided over by a Methodist clergyman, she received a letter from the Education Department demanding to know if she had addressed the meeting and was correctly described there as a delegate from the EWL to the Soviet Union. She wrote back, declining to answer these questions because they “concerned her private actions and infringed her rights as a citizen”. She was then suspended from duty under the Public Service Act, guilty of “misconduct, wilful disobedience to a lawful order, and improper conduct”.[15] A Public Service Board enquiry was set for 24 January 1933.

The EWL set up a Defence Committee, and in early January called a protest conference for the same date. It was a huge success; over 500 delegates from 278 organisations attended, including 50 trade unions, 111 Labor Party branches (but notably not the Labor Party executive), 17 Socialisation Units, 29 organisations of the unemployed and numerous other bodies. It made press headlines by calling on parents of children who attended Taylor’s school in Paddington to keep their children at home on the first day of the school year. The hearing was postponed until 31 January, but this only provided another opportunity for the EWL to organise. They held a mass protest meeting in the Sydney Town Hall on 30 January, which opened with a talk by Taylor. The next day there were more headlines as several hundred protesters clashed with police at the Paddington school. The organisers of the school boycott calculated that about half the parents had kept their children at home.[16] It was undoubtedly these actions, rather than the eloquence of Taylor’s counsel, that persuaded the board to drop the charges and immediately reinstate her. The education minister (David Drummond, a founding member of the Country Party and a rabid anti-communist) tried without success to pursue the case against Taylor, as well attempting to purge schools of any teachers associated with the CPA or the Socialisation Units.

The EWL rightly saw this victory as a vindication for the kind of tactics and activity they advocated for the union. They noted that the campaign had been supported by thousands of workers, and argued that the methods of organisation put forward by the EWL “will also achieve success, when properly applied, in opposition to attacks upon salaries and conditions”.[17] Notably, the campaign had received no support from the official union leadership. The day after Taylor’s reinstatement, the Federation council elected an executive on which radical views were barely represented.

After this triumph, things went backwards for teachers for a period. It was the height of the Depression and workers were under attack. Teachers’ wages were cut with no effective resistance from the union, and membership declined to the lowest point since 1919, accounting for barely half of all teachers. In 1936, the EWL was disbanded as the CPA adopted the disastrous popular front strategy. But the CPA’s decision to disband the EWL did not mean that the party no longer played a role in the union. In the latter stages of World War II and its aftermath, there was a general shift to the left in the working class. As Mitchell explains:

In the last three or four years of the war the mood of Australian political and social life was more sympathetic to socialist ideas than ever before: the Communist party enjoyed expanding membership, the Labor party won sweeping electoral victories, and there was much talk of reconstructing society when the war was over. The federation reflected all this in its policies and propaganda as well as in the composition of its executive.[18]

One symptom of this shift was that during World War II the Federation affiliated to the NSW Labour Council and the ACTU, signalling a growing consciousness that teachers were part of the broader workers’ movement.

By the end of the war, union coverage had recovered to about 90 percent, and in 1945, Sam Lewis, a founder of the EWL and CPA member,[19] was elected as the Federation’s president, a position he held until 1952. Former EWL members accounted for eight of the 17 positions on the executive, along with a few fellow-travellers. In 1946, now effectively led by the CPA, the union won a large pay rise, the biggest since 1920 and one that set the standard for other professional workers.

However, by now Lewis and the leadership group around him had pragmatically abandoned the radicalism of the EWL. The overriding issue for them was to maintain a single, united teachers’ organisation, and this meant not alienating more conservative sections such as primary teachers and teachers in rural areas. The union leaders instead focused their energy on bread-and-butter industrial issues, such as wages and conditions.

This was at least partly attributable to the general rightward shift in the political climate as the Cold War ramped up and the Lewis leadership came under sustained attack from without and within. In late 1947, the former Labor premier Jack Lang repeatedly attacked Lewis in the NSW parliament as “a notorious Communist [who] holds an important position in the inner Communist organisation in Australia”,[20] receiving wide press coverage. Soon after, right-wing forces in the union formed the Teachers’ Federation Anti-Communist League, an unlikely alliance of Catholics, Protestants, Liberal and Labor party supporters united only by their determination to oust the Lewis leadership.

In 1951 – the year of Menzies’ anti-communist referendum and all the right-wing hysteria surrounding it – the Federation organised a successful student strike by trainee teachers over living allowances, which saw hundreds of students in NSW teachers’ colleges boycott lectures and take to the streets. Historian Alan Barcan said of its political significance:

It was the first open protest by trainee teachers. If seen as a strike, it was the first strike by (future) teachers in NSW. It was a step in the development of white-collar union militancy. It was a victory for the Lewis forces within the Teachers’ Federation at a time when their strength was declining. It may have shaped the outlook of some future teachers.[21]

The following year, however, the right defeated the Lewis leadership, and for the next five years, the Federation was wracked by bitter factional disputes.

Transformation in the 1960s

Teachers generally thought of themselves as a “cut above” blue collar trade unionists. However, these conservative attitudes tended to dissipate as the sector evolved and proletarianised. The post-war boom created a demand for more highly skilled and educated workers, and this in turn led to a rapid and massive expansion of both secondary and tertiary education throughout the Western world. That meant training more teachers and building more schools. But in the mid-1960s, most state education systems in Australia were in crisis, suffering from long-term neglect and unable to keep pace with the expansion needed as a result of the post-war baby boom. Buildings were decrepit and there was a chronic shortage of qualified teachers.

In an effort to boost teacher numbers, governments offered teaching scholarships, and these provided a pathway for people from working-class backgrounds to access higher education in unprecedented numbers. There was a rapid influx of young teachers into the workforce, and many of them were influenced by the mass political radicalisation of the 1960s and ’70s, and the upsurge of worker and union struggles of that time. Many activists with experience in the movement against the Vietnam War, or in campaigns against apartheid, for Indigenous rights, women’s rights and so on, ended up as teachers.

This new generation brought with them a greater willingness to engage in union struggles, as well as an enthusiasm for radical pedagogy and a more democratic approach to education. They chafed against the authoritarianism that characterised relations within schools and between teachers and their employers. The dual character and role of teacher unions persisted, but now concern about “professional” issues tended to fuel a more militant stance. In her history of the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association (VSTA), Jan Bassett makes a point that is more widely applicable:

The association’s main policies during these years [1960s and early ’70s]…were professional ones. But the methods it used to implement them, including stopworks and boycotts, were those of a union.[22]

Teachers now saw themselves as the vanguard for educational reform, and this was often linked to broader issues of social reform. Given this, it’s not surprising that teacher unions have for the most part been on the left of the broader trade union movement. They have taken a stand and sometimes campaigned around such issues as war, racism and Indigenous rights, uranium mining and nuclear weapons testing. They have fought sexism and discrimination against lesbian and gay teachers and students. All of this underpinned the wave of teacher union militancy that took place in the 1960s and ’70s. Teacher union historian Andrew Spaull noted that in the decade 1963-73, “teacher militancy emerged for the first time as a major and dominant feature of the Australian educational scene”.[23] In the latter half of this article, I trace this process in the NSWTF and particularly in the VSTA, of which I was a member for some of the period discussed.

Radicalisation in the NSWTF

The anti-communist forces in the NSWTF which were dominant in the 1950s and early 1960s eventually declined, allowing the left to make a comeback, and Sam Lewis served another term as president from 1964-67. A left-wing union leadership, however, was no guarantee of industrial militancy. The Federation under Lewis “relied mostly on lobbying government ministers and appearances before the Teachers Tribunal”.[24]

But things were starting to change. A long campaign over working conditions culminated in October 1968 with the first ever statewide strike by NSW teachers. It was a huge success: 80 percent of teachers walked off the job, and over 12,000 attended a mass meeting – the largest meeting of members of a single union in Australian history to that point. The strike bore immediate fruit: on the same day, the Cabinet voted to ask the Commonwealth for authority to borrow $5 million for school buildings, and within days announced an increase in education spending and the extension of teacher education from two to three years.

This was an enormous breakthrough: the strike was now seen as both a legitimate and effective weapon. There was no further statewide strike in NSW until 1973, although there were quite a few strikes in individual schools, reflecting a growing militancy among teachers.

One of the most inspiring of these was a strike at Warilla High School in Wollongong in 1976 that lasted for 28 days.[25] As well as being the longest teachers’ strike in Australian history to that point, it provided a magnificent example of working-class community solidarity. Although it started in response to a specific local grievance, it was also part of a general struggle by the Federation for smaller class sizes and increased staffing for disadvantaged schools. The strike began on 10 February when the 75 striking teachers (all the staff except for the principal, deputy principal and two teachers who were not union members) marched on the local Education Office demanding a replacement science teacher. The strike was run democratically and with a focus on organising support and solidarity.

Led by school-based activists, [the striking teachers] met every morning outside the school fence and voted on whether the dispute continued for another day. They would then disperse and go and speak to other schools to garner support and funds to sustain the strikers.[26]

This reaching out paid off: the first of many solidarity strikes occurred on 13 February, when teachers at Warrawong stopped work. This was more than a mere act of support; these workers took the opportunity to raise their own demands for more staff to provide remedial English classes for the 70 percent of Warrawong pupils who did not have an English-speaking background. Teachers in all Illawarra schools pledged $20 a fortnight to the strike fund, while the Federation planned regional and statewide rolling strikes.

On 17 February a meeting of 400 parents and students unanimously supported the Warilla teachers, and the school captain told the Illawarra Mercury that all the students supported the strike. Student sympathy strikes began at Warrawong and Berkeley High Schools.

On 23 February schools in Sydney began rolling stoppages, and students at Port Kembla High School staged a sympathy strike. Two days later 300 students marched down Crown Street, Wollongong, some carrying a banner reading “Two hour strike for better education”.

South Coast Labour Council Secretary (and CPA member) Merv Nixon made it clear that all unions in the region supported the Warilla teachers, and this wasn’t just talk. There were sympathy strikes by cleaners at Warilla, bread carters supplied free bread and barbers gave free haircuts. The Seamen’s Union stopped work so that the Warilla teachers could address them, and the Port Kembla waterside workers passed a motion of support. The Ports Committee, representing eight maritime unions, started to talk about industrial action. Tugboat crews walked off the job in support of the teachers and tied up around 18 ships. Merv Nixon “famously took the regional director to his window overlooking the harbour and told him the harbour would not re-open until the Warilla staff’s demands were met”.[27]

Nixon described the strike as “the most principled dispute the South Coast TLC had been involved in. They were not seeking money or better conditions for themselves but better conditions for children in a working class area”.[28]

There were casualties: not all of the 75 teachers who began the strike lasted the distance. After 26 days, 44 were still out, dropping to a final number of 40. Nonetheless, the strike ended in a total victory, and not just for the Warilla teachers. The school got an additional science teacher and mathematics teacher. But all disadvantaged schools in NSW eventually benefitted from a new staffing formula that was applied statewide. The “magnificent 40”, as they were known, “met once again at the front gate of the school and as a group voted to return to work. They marched back into school as a unified group, victorious and unbowed”.[29]

The Victorian Secondary Teachers Association

For a period in the 1960s and ’70s, the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association (VSTA) was arguably one of the most radical and militant unions in Australia, certainly among white collar unions. “Between 1962 and 1974, the VSTA came down from the mountain and breathed fire among the people”, wrote Andrew Spaull in 1975. He described it as “a pacesetter of Australian teacher unionism” and “one of the most important influences on both teachers’ attitudes and the Victorian education system”.[30] Bruce Mitchell noted the “more extensive and ambitious strikes of recent years in Victoria”, as compared with NSW.[31]

Yet the VSTA’s origins were far from auspicious. It began life as a right-wing breakaway from the Victorian Teachers’ Union (VTU), formed in 1926. The VTU was then a left-wing union,[32] one of the few that advocated equal pay for women at the time. Like the NSWTF, it was influenced by the CPA, especially during World War II. From 1943, the VTU called for the abolition of secondary margins and the same rate of pay for all teachers.

In 1948 the secondary margin was reduced from 12 percent to 8 percent and this incensed a group of teachers at Melbourne High, an elite, selective-entry school within the state system. They called a protest meeting and out of this came the Victorian Secondary Masters’ Professional Association (VSMPA), which excluded women and opposed equal pay for both women and primary teachers – a thoroughly reactionary and elitist outfit. But before long, there was agitation from below to admit women. On the ground, most male teachers could see that restricting membership undermined their potential strength and influence. Despite undemocratic resistance from the leadership, women were admitted in 1953 and the union’s name changed. Three years later the VSTA also adopted a policy of equal pay for women.

Paradoxically, it was a series of affronts to their professional pride that drove the VSTA in the direction of militant unionism. Their first industrial campaign started in 1964, when the union called on members to stop signing the time-book. This was carried out despite threats of disciplinary action, and it wasn’t long before the time-books disappeared.

In July 1965, VSTA members were the first teachers to take strike action since the WA strike of 1920, and this was the start of a sustained period of industrial militancy. Bill Hannan was a classroom teacher, held various positions in the VSTA leadership, edited the union magazine and was a leading contributor to progressive curriculum reform in Victoria. In his memoir, The Best of Times, he writes: “Between 1969 and 1971 the VSTA organised more strikes than perhaps any other teachers’ union in world history”. He estimates that there was an average of one strike per week in those years.[33]

Hannan gives a feel for the spirit of a time when Australian workers generally were experiencing a high level of class combativity:

As in warfare so in industrial confrontations, engagements with the enemy can be stirring or demoralising. Stopworks especially are stirring events… [T]here is an element of release, purification even, when you walk off the job and join a lot of colleagues with the same purpose. You have defied the rules that are supposed to bind you. You have told your employer that there is something more important to you than the day’s pay… You have shown the bosses that they have responsibilities beyond watching their backs and digging in. You have told the world that you are right and authority is wrong.[34]

Between 1965 and 1973, the VSTA waged simultaneous campaigns under the umbrella of “professional action”: tribunal reform, curriculum and assessment reform, control of entry, inspection, working conditions and teachers’ rights. This was an ambitious program for a small union whose membership in these years peaked at just over 7,000 members,[35] and by no means covered the entire secondary teaching workforce. It was not unusual for VSTA members to be on strike multiple times per year over different issues.

At the height of this period, VSTA members would simply walk out if an inspector appeared at a school, or when the limit the union imposed on teaching hours and class sizes was exceeded, or if a non-union-registered teacher was sent to the school. As well as a large number of half-day, 24- and 48-hour statewide strikes, there were prolonged strikes at individual schools, with teachers supported by a central strike fund.

There were also strikes and protests in response to the stand-down, sacking or forced transfers of teachers. In most cases these victimisations arose out of the various industrial campaigns – for example teachers being sacked as “incompetent” if they refused to submit to inspection, or being issued with strike bans for taking industrial action. The arch-reactionary Liberal premier of the time, Henry Bolte, complained that “secondary school-teachers seemed to be on strike on ‘matters of conscience’ more than they were at work”.[36]

The Teachers’ Tribunal

The VSTA had long been unhappy with the Teachers’ Tribunal, which determined salaries. In June 1965, when the tribunal brought down an award that saw some teachers receive no pay rise at all, while others received a miserable 3.5 percent, there was widespread anger. Over a thousand members attended an evening protest meeting and overwhelmingly supported an executive motion for a half-day strike on 2 July. This was the first of many actions for tribunal reform. The most spectacular – and controversial – was the indefinite strike by 41 of the 48 teachers at the elite Melbourne High School,[37] which lasted from 15 February to 12 March 1971. As was often to happen, the VSTA leadership called off the strike when the education minister offered to negotiate. And, as was usually the case when this happened, negotiations would drag out fruitlessly, and little headway was made. Eventually, the union changed its policy from reform of the tribunal to its abolition, calling instead for direct negotiations with the employer.[38]


By the early 1960s there was growing hostility to the demeaning system of classroom inspection, which was required for promotion, and the rigid classification system that accompanied it. At a meeting of the union’s metropolitan group in 1962 it was argued that the inspection system “was unprofessional, had a stultifying effect on educational standards and practices, bred corruption of professional ideals, and was inefficient and unnecessary”.[39] Members at a combined meeting of the Latrobe Valley and South Gippsland groups supported the abolition of inspection, but went even further, suggesting that promotion for positions other than those of principal should be automatic. The 1963 annual general meeting (AGM) passed a resolution from the Moreland High School branch, opposing in principle “all systems of obligatory assessment of teachers’ efficiency by Inspectors or any representative of the employing authority”.[40] Following fruitless negotiations, the 1969 AGM voted to take direct action against inspection, other than for probationary teachers. From the start of 1970, this would involve teachers walking out if an inspector entered their classroom for assessment purposes. Members responded enthusiastically, and in a remarkably short time won a major concession: in April the Committee of Secondary Classifiers agreed to accept references as evidence of aptitude for promotion, as an alternative to inspectors’ reports. Building on this, the union stepped up its campaign the next year, calling on members to walk out if inspectors entered the school to assess anyone for promotion, and not to cooperate with the Department’s “consultative panels”. VSTA members continued to fight, and a number were victimised. In 1973, the director of secondary education, Bert Schruhm, issued a provocative memorandum which mandated that there would be no promotion without inspection. The VSTA responded with a one-day statewide strike, and a mass meeting voted for a further mass stopwork and indefinite strikes in selected schools if the memorandum wasn’t withdrawn.

Statewide, regional and individual branch strikes continued into 1974. A highlight of the campaign occurred in August 1974, when a long series of regional stopworks culminated in a march and the invasion of the Old Mint building in Melbourne (which housed the tribunal) by VSTA members. A trainee teacher at the time, I vividly remember the TV news footage of loud and angry teachers surrounding the car of a hapless bureaucrat. A further one-day statewide stopwork took place on 2 October, with an indefinite statewide strike scheduled to begin on 15 October. Once again, the union leadership called off the strike two days later, when the minister offered to negotiate. But local school action continued, and eventually, on 1 May 1975, the inspection of secondary teachers effectively ended, though skirmishes around the issue continued till the early 1980s.

Control of entry

The control of entry campaign was designed to stop the department plugging gaps in schools by employing untrained and/or unqualified people as temporary teachers as it struggled to keep up with the demand for more schools and more teachers. Like the recruitment of large numbers of teachers from the US and Britain, this was a cheaper option than actually providing suitable training. “The Department believed that putting bodies in front of classes was the supreme imperative. Qualifications…could wait on better times.”[41] And “[t]he Department did not necessarily check the claims of temporary employees, since in effect there were no official standards anyway”.[42] Bill Hannan recalls the incredulous response of people outside the sector:

There must have been some qualifications required, they say. They couldn’t just walk in off the street.

They could and did. VSTA surveys…showed that about one third of teachers were temporary, few of them qualified, many of them with no higher qualifications than their students.[43]

A union survey in April 1968 indicated that only about 39 percent of teachers held degrees.[44] The figure fell to 35.4 percent for teachers with both a degree and teacher training. “Fully qualified teachers…were ‘a bare majority’: 51 percent.”[45]

The 1968 AGM resolved that the union would fight to control entry to secondary teaching under a plan to be implemented from 1 April 1969. This would involve the VSTA setting up its own registration system, requiring secondary teachers to have at least three years of tertiary education – a basic degree. Those who did not have this could be provisionally registered, and could continue teaching, but were required to upgrade their qualifications within seven years, with the union demanding full-time training on full pay to achieve this. Members would refuse to work alongside anyone not registered or provisionally registered with the union. A number of statewide strikes and mass meetings were held on this issue, but it was largely up to individual branches to enforce the policy. A teacher at Kew High School recalled “waiting at the front door of the school for an unqualified teacher to arrive. We had decided to tell her that we would take strike action if she were appointed”.[46] This was a common experience.

On 3 October, 31 of 46 teachers at Northcote High School embarked on an indefinite strike to remove an unqualified teacher from teaching duties, and a statewide strike in their support took place on 31 October. But following unproductive negotiations, the VSTA leadership called off the strike and the Northcote teachers returned to work on 17 November. In 1970, despite some compromises on the part of the Department and the VSTA leadership, school-based action continued, with mixed results. A three-and-a-half-week strike at Murrumbeena High School ended in victory, with an unregistered teacher placed on non-teaching duties and a registered teacher employed. The longest control of entry strike took place in April the following year at Maribyrnong High School. Lasting 11 weeks, it was the longest teachers’ strike in Australia to that time. It was unsuccessful in its immediate objective of removing unregistered teachers from the school, but the following year, few if any teachers were appointed without three years of VSTA-approved secondary teacher education.

Control of entry to some extent reflected the “professional” character of teacher unions, with undertones of a “craft union” defending its members’ interests. An AGM resolution in 1962 demanded “strong and prompt action to safeguard and advance the professional status of secondary teachers”.[47] But the policy, and particularly the industrial campaign to win it, also had elements of workers’ control.[48] Moreover, many teachers saw control of entry as being in their students’ interests and increasingly spoke of the policy in those terms. For example, striking teachers at Maribyrnong High in 1971 wrote in the VSTA News: “Teachers are prepared to stand firm, and for even longer periods, to improve the standard of education that children of this state are receiving”.[49] And some of the strikers later told Hannan that:

[T]hey were particularly resentful that unqualified teachers should be in a school where the students were mainly of working class background and many from a nearby migrant hostel. They did not see the VSTA as a conventional union, but one that was struggling, like them, to improve the system for the sake of the kids.[50]

On the eve of the control of entry campaign, Education Minister Lindsay Thompson had written to the VSTA, threatening that “the framing of these plans…could constitute a criminal conspiracy to effect a public mischief and that those framing the plans and those taking part in their implementation could be guilty of this offence against the State”.[51] By 1972, control of entry was effectively won, with VSTA president Geoff Reid commenting that: “Three years of public mischief produced remarkable improvements in teacher recruitment and training”.[52]

An Age editorial at the time of the VSTA’s first strike in July 1965 had praised the more conservative VTU’s “shrewd restraint” (ie not striking) as opposed to the VSTA’s “impetuous and unseemly behaviour”.[53] But the evidence shows that it was the unseemly behaviour that got results.

Working conditions

In March 1971 the VSTA launched its “conditions case”, which set limits on face-to-face teaching hours and class sizes. If implemented this would require the hiring of many more teachers, so it was also about needs-based staffing of schools. Members were to teach only until their union-approved allotments were reached, refuse to take more than one “extra” class per week and to inform their principals that they would not take classes larger than the union recommendation. Some principals sought to comply, for example by reducing the length of the school day. Others did not, and over the next few years, a number of teachers were reprimanded, fined or issued with “strike bans” as branches implemented the policy. Direct action often got results. For example, at the start of 1973 teachers at Huntingdale High School calculated that the school needed six more teachers to achieve union conditions. Seven strikes by an average of 34 teachers brought this number down to 0.5 by the beginning of second term.[54] Negotiations between the VSTA and the department over the related issues of staffing and conditions continued unproductively for some years, and the department’s heavy-handed use of strike bans led to a two-day statewide strike in April 1979. An agreement over conditions and needs-based staffing was eventually reached as part of the log of claims thrashed out with the Labor government in 1982, though it didn’t satisfy everyone.

Curriculum and assessment

The role of public education under capitalism is to produce suitably trained and socialised workers, conforming to workplace discipline and able to play a productive role in the economy – ie generate profits for employers. Most teachers, however, enter the profession believing that their role is to enrich their students’ lives and help them to reach their full potential. This belief has often driven campaigns for reforms in the areas of curriculum and assessment, and the VSTA was a leader in this area. As Bassett notes:

[T]here were increasing numbers of teachers in Victorian secondary schools, many of whom had been educated…during the “education explosion” of the 1950s and 1960s and at universities and colleges during the “protest years” of the late 1960s and early 1970s, who were keen to make education more egalitarian and less authoritarian.[55]

The most controversial of the VSTA’s radical education policies was the “open entry” policy narrowly adopted at the AGM in 1973. The union position was that anyone who wanted to should be able to attend university, without passing exams in a system that inevitably disadvantaged working-class students. If there weren’t enough places, then entry should be decided by a random ballot as the only selection method that put everyone on a level playing field. The 1974 AGM attempted to give the policy some teeth: in another narrow vote, members were called on to boycott the Higher School Certificate (HSC). This caused a huge furore inside and outside the union. An anti-ballot committee (ABC) was set up by right-wing members; it succeeded in calling a special general meeting in December 1974 which, again narrowly, overturned the policy. Open tertiary entry remained on the books as policy, but no further attempts were made to implement it. However, the union turned to developing alternative Year 12 courses and pathways to higher education, with some success.

Rank-and-file militancy

What is striking about the VSTA’s campaigns in this period is the extent to which they depended on rank-and-file members in schools, which were the site of a lot of the action, whether it was spontaneous walk-outs or lengthy strikes. The inspection, conditions and control of entry campaigns in particular all relied on the initiative and organisation of individual branches, and members’ willingness to stand up to principals and department bureaucrats, risking all kinds of victimisation, from fines to forced transfers to dismissal.

In his study of Australian unions in the post-war period, Tom Bramble writes: “Just as there were industrially militant unions with politically moderate union leaders, so there were industrially quiescent unions with left-wing leaders”,[56] and he cites the NSW Teachers’ Federation as an example of the latter. The VSTA was certainly an example of the former. Its radical policies and militant campaigns were for the most part led by a group of conservative officials who at times faced opposition from even more conservative elements, but also from the left.

Like all union officials, the VSTA leadership preferred negotiations to industrial action. So, as we have seen, they were all too ready to call off strikes if the department dangled the prospect of negotiations, which usually went nowhere. On numerous occasions they ignored or overturned resolutions from delegates’ and mass stopwork meetings. This adversely affected the momentum of campaigns when more determined action could have brought better and speedier results. They were often prepared to make concessions that weren’t acceptable to a lot of members, and they had a very poor record when it came to defending victimised teachers. They were opposed by small rank-and-file groups,[57] which argued for “militant, democratic and socially-conscious unionism”, and regularly and often successfully intervened in union forums. At mass stopwork meetings it was possible to win motions from the floor for indefinite strikes, in marked contrast to more recent times.

By the 1970s the VSTA Central Committee was increasingly split between the dominant right faction, the “Houndstooth and Tie Section”, and the left-wing “Youth and Beards Section”. These nicknames were coined by Joan Rosser, one of four teachers at Werribee High School victimised for striking in support of union policy and subsequently “betrayed”, as Rosser put it, by the VSTA leadership.[58] For all their radicalism on education issues, the right were opposed to the union taking up broader social issues – “Vietnam with the lot” as one of the officials scathingly called it.[59] They opposed left initiatives such as the establishment of open subcommittees on women and homosexuality to address sexism and discrimination, opposition to uranium mining and affiliation to the Trades Hall Council, but they were rolled on these and other progressive policies at annual general meetings.

By late 1981, member dissatisfaction had reached the point where a reform group led by Brian Henderson was able to win the leadership under the slogan “Revitalise the VSTA”. The following year, decades of Liberal government also came to an end, and under the new leadership and Labor government, a number of long-running issues were resolved, though not all of them satisfactorily. The “heroic phase” of the VSTA was over.


In the 1980s, union militancy entered a steep decline from which it is yet to recover. One of the most damaging outcomes of the Prices and Incomes Accord – sold to workers almost exclusively by the “left” unions – was the decline of rank-and-file organisation and increasing bureaucratisation and top-down union leadership. The state-based teacher unions were not immune from this, or from the general rightward shift in society. As Tom Bramble writes:

In education departments across the country, union leaders became partners in the administration of the system and in many cases quit their posts to take up appointments in the public service or ministerial offices. These processes led to an increasing marginalisation of rank-and-file members in decision-making within the teacher unions.

He goes on to quote Graham Holt, a delegate of the technical teachers’ union in Victoria:

[D]ecisions that affected people in schools were being made by the Education Department after they had agreement from the central union. So the teachers wouldn’t actually have much input. The decision would be announced that this had been negotiated with the teacher unions. So it would be decided at the top.[60]

Socialist and left-wing teachers today face a huge task in attempting to rebuild grass-roots union organisation in a situation where the rank-and-file members have largely been sidelined and at best used as a stage army. The memory of past struggles and victories should not only inspire us, but also provide valuable lessons for the struggles to come.


Armstrong, Mick 2021, “Founding the CPA”, Marxist Left Review, 21, Summer.

Ashbolt, Anthony 2006, “The Warilla High School Strike: a veritable class struggle”, Illawarra Unity – Journal of the Illawarra Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 6 (1), 2006, pp3-10.

Barcan, Alan 2002, Radical students: the old left at Sydney University, Melbourne University Press.

Bassett, Jan 1995, “Matters of Conscience”. A History of the Victorian Secondary Teachers’ Association, (official history commissioned by the VSTA), PenFolk Publishing.

Bramble, Tom 2008, Trade Unionism in Australia. A history from flood to ebb tide, Cambridge University Press.

Carey, Adam 2020, “Principals demand end to face-to-face classes as school closures grow”, The Age, 28 July.

Dixon, John 2018, ““History Lesson: Local efforts at the core of union successes”, NSW Teachers Federation website, 8 November.

Hannan, Bill 2009, The Best of Times. The story of the great secondary school expansion, Lexis.

Mitchell, Bruce 1975, Teachers, Education, and Politics. A History of Public School Teachers in New South Wales, University of Queensland Press.

O’Lincoln, Tom 1986, “The Militant Minority. Organising rank and file workers in the thirties”.

Peace, Meredith 2020, “COVID-19 update for schools members”, AEU email to members, 28 July.

Spaull, Andrew 1975, “The Origins and Formation of the Victorian Secondary Teachers’ Association 1948-1954”, Melbourne Studies in Education, 17, 1, pp94-125.

Spaull, Andrew 1977, “Trends in teacher militancy”, in Andrew Spaull (ed.), Australian Teachers. From Colonial Schoolmasters to Militant Professionals, Macmillan.

Stanton, Brendan 2020, “Victorian teachers speak out against reckless school policy”, Red Flag, 29 July.

[1] Carey 2020.

[2] Peace 2020.

[3] Stanton 2020.

[4] Spaull 1977, page ix.

[5] For a detailed account, see Horner, “The State School Teachers’ Union of Western Australia”, in Spaull (ed.) 1977, pp234-245.

[6] Mitchell 1975, pp100-101.

[7] For a summary of this process in the CPA, see Armstrong 2021.

[8] See O’Lincoln 1986.

[9] Mitchell 1975, p106.

[10] Mitchell 1975, p174.

[11] This remains a vexed question for many teachers, as the interests of teachers and principals are often counterposed; even more so in modern times, as principals have increasingly become more like CEOs than educational leaders.

[12] Mitchell 1975, p109.

[13] Mitchell 1975, p107.

[14] Mitchell 1975, pp173-174.

[15] Mitchell 1975, p115.

[16] Mitchell 1975, p116.

[17] Mitchell 1975, p118.

[18] Mitchell 1975, p157.

[19] However Mitchell says of Lewis that “his tactics did not often follow Communist party orthodoxy”. Mitchell 1975, p174.

[20] Mitchell 1975, p168.

[21] Barcan 2002, p266.

[22] Bassett 1995, p204.

[23] Spaull, “Trends in teacher militancy”, in Spaull (ed.) 1977, p302.

[24] Bramble 2008, p21.

[25] This account is largely based on Ashbolt 2006.

[26] Dixon 2018.

[27] Dixon 2018.

[28] Quoted in Ashbolt 2006, p10.

[29] Dixon 2018.

[30] Spaull 1975.

[31] Mitchell 1977, p203.

[32] In 1967, technical teachers also split from the VTU to form the Technical Teachers’ Association (later Union) of Victoria (TTUV). Many of its members were former tradespeople and were more inclined to industrial militancy. It was the first of the Victorian teacher unions to affiliate to the Trades Hall Council, in 1974. The VSTA followed suit a year later. The VTU thus came to represent only primary teachers, and was considerably more conservative than either the VSTA or the TTUV.

[33] Hannan 2009, p244.

[34] Hannan 2009, p244.

[35] Bassett 1995, p212.

[36] Tom Prior, Bolte by Bolte, Craftsman, 1990, p153, cited in Bassett 1995.

[37] The VSTA branch itself had volunteered to undertake this action; things had certainly changed since teachers there initiated the VSMPA!

[38] Direct negotiations were eventually achieved after the election of a Labor government in April 1982. The Teachers’ Tribunal was abolished in August of that year.

[39] Bassett 1995, p53.

[40] Bassett 1995, p53.

[41] Hannan 2009, p260.

[42] Hannan 2009, p255.

[43] Hannan 2009, p258. In 1962, Hannan was elected president of the newly formed Metropolitan Group, a discussion forum for union members in Melbourne. It took up the “in principle” support for control of entry from the 1962 AGM and fleshed it out as a policy. Hannan 2009, p64.

[44] Bassett 1995, p76.

[45] Hannan 2009, p255.

[46] Hannan 2009, p245.

[47] Hannan 2009, p63.

[48] Unlike the modern Victorian Institute of Teaching (VIT), a bureaucratic “independent” statutory authority established by an act of parliament in 2002. Its Council is appointed on the recommendation of the minister for education.

[49] Hannan 2009, p297.

[50] Hannan 2009, p299.

[51] Bassett 1995, pp76-77.

[52] Bassett 1995, p100.

[53] Cited in Bassett 1995, p66.

[54] Bassett 1995, p102.

[55] Bassett 1995, p111.

[56] Bramble 2008, p21.

[57] Teacher Action and Links in the 1970s, Teacher Solidarity in the early 1980s; members of Socialist Alternative’s precursor organisations, including myself, were involved in all of these groups.

[58] Bassett 1995, p112. As the nicknames indicate, they were mostly male. Although teaching was a female-dominated occupation, leadership positions at the time, both in schools and the teacher unions, were overwhelmingly male.

[59] Bassett 1995, p107.

[60] Bramble 2008, p130.

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