Equality and social justice are at the heart of the trade union agenda. Recently, the EIS was invited to travel to Australia, as guests of the Australian Education Union.

Andrene Bamford, National President, and Selma Augestad, National Officer (Equality) represented the EIS at three Australian conferences, expressing our international solidarity and learning from the experiences of our trade union colleagues across the globe. The EIS was proud to share and learn with our sister unions and activists about our battles for equality. In this article, we share some initial reflections on our trip down under.

Joining New South Wales Teachers Federation and International Colleagues on the Sydney Harbour Bridge WorldPride March

The value of public education

The Australian Education Union Annual Conference in Melbourne highlighted significant inequalities within the public education system, including the basic access to good quality, free education.

Correna Haythorpe, Federal President of AEU spoke powerfully, calling for a stop to government’s reliance on the goodwill of teachers and support staff to make up for funding shortfalls. The underfunding of public schools means that in 2021, Australian teachers were having to dip into their own pockets to the tune of $143.7 million per year (approx. £79 million). As cost of living pressures rise, this burden is only exacerbated and, compounded also by gender wage inequality.

The conference also heard from the Education Minister, Jason Clare, who spoke of building a better and fairer education system and fixing unfairness in funding and outcomes. The AEU conference joined global calls for full fair funding of public schools, ongoing funding for college education, and proper investment in preschool.

The President of Education International, Susan Hopgood, and former General Secretary of the ITUC, Sharan Burrow, discussed the resilience of teachers and the union movement, globally, in the face of great uncertainty.

Unions for Yes

As part of the national Australian Education Union Conference, the EIS sat in on caucus meetings for women members, LGBT members and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members, the launch of the Unions for Yes campaign was a primary focus.

Travelling from Scotland to attend these important Australian conferences is a privilege that must be acknowledged, and knowing Scotland’s shameful role in colonialism must mean a commitment to learning more about the impact of this today.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have lived in Australia continuously for over 60,000 years. To respect this fact, an acknowledgment of country precedes formal and some informal events in Australia, to show respect for the traditional custodians and owners of the land, who have resisted colonisation over the 200 years of British settlement.

Part of the EIS’s campaigning and work on anti-racist education, must include teaching about Scotland’s complicity in colonialism, and the resilience of First Nation people.

Our time in Australia coincided with a landmark moment in Australian history, the announcement of a referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. The proposal would see that a body of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people advise the Australian Parliament and government on matters relating to their communities.

Until a referendum in 1967, Aboriginal people were excluded from Australian population census and referendum voting rules did not apply to them (Australia has a compulsory voting system), until 1983.

The violence of colonialism and imperialism continue to impact First Nation people today – their connection to country, culture, identity and also, their equitable access to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander led education and knowledge systems. Socio-economic outcomes continue to be vastly unequal, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being still more likely to be incarcerated, than graduate high school.

The Australian Education Union joined in calling for Unions for Yes, and supporting the pillars of Voice, Treaty and Truth.

AEU, Education International and international education union colleagues brought an education focus to the WorldPride Human Rights Conference

Dutch colleague in front of Union Pride stall, Sydney WorldPride Human Rights Conference

Using LGBT inclusive education to counter the far-right

In Sydney, we turned to join our colleagues at the Diversity in Education Conference, and WorldPride Human Rights Conference. WorldPride was a momentous occasion that saw people arriving in the city from all across the globe, united in a commitment to a world where people are safe to love, and to be themselves. On Sunday 5th March, we joined 50,000 people walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge as part of a historic Pride march.

The EIS presented on the Scottish context of a national rollout of LGBT inclusive education, against a backdrop of a rise in recorded anti-LGBT crimes and the blocking of the implementation of the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, by the UK Government.

In Australia, the comprehensive 2010 Safe School Program, which was intended to help schools foster a safe and inclusive environment for LGBT students, was met with such a significant backlash that most schools are unable to use it, still today. Inclusive education is not part of the curriculum or professional teaching standards, and private schools are permitted to opt out of equality legislation – effectively enabling them to discriminate and sack teachers for being LGBT. Within this context, learning more about the commitment and work of the Australian LGBT teachers and activists was inspiring, with active LGBT networks and ally groups organising across the country.

At the WorldPride Human Rights Conference, countless speakers, including UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation on Gender Identity, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, also singled out the situation in the UK, and Scotland specifically, as a specific example of the far-right utilising attacks on LGBT rights to further wider undemocratic agendas. Already last year, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) named the UK, alongside Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Turkey as five places where advances for LGBT people are under significant threat.

These developments further underline the importance of LGBT inclusive education, which we will explore in further depth in future SEJ features. Until then, we continue to Take Pride in Teaching.

What rights are there to fight for, under water?

The urgency of the climate crisis was acutely felt during our time in Australia. Notably, speakers from Fiji and New Zealand spoke powerfully about the need for global solidarity to address the climate crisis. For our colleagues in countries most affected by the climate emergency, tackling discrimination and inequality goes hand in hand with halting the drastic decline of our environment. Our solidarity efforts must extend to this most urgent matter, as without it, there will be nothing left to fight for. Climate emergency is a health and safety issue, a trade union issue, and an issue that can only be addressed by putting pressure on the government to stop policies and business decisions that contribute to it.

Through trade unionism, we have mechanisms to capture and amplify the voice of the workers, the people who keep us in food, shelter, health and education – the basics of life. Trade Unionism is democratic in a way that transcends the democracy of Politics. It is primarily through trade unionism that we have won the workplace benefits that we now take for granted – like equal pay, maternity leave and pay, holiday pay, sick pay, health and safety legislation. Trade Unionism saves lives.

The global trade union movement reminds us that our struggles, though they may manifest differently, are one. We continue to stand in global solidarity – for fairness, fair work and social justice. We express our utmost gratitude to our AEU colleagues for their hospitality, friendship and solidarity. Your struggle is our struggle. Solidarity!

For further information about the matters arising from the EIS’s visit to Australia, and resources to follow, visit the equality tabs on eis.org.uk.

Andrene at the AEU conference

EIS workshop for Diversity in Education Conference, Sydney