xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: Industrial Action: A very fishy tale.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Industrial Action: A very fishy tale.

Teachers, Education Assistants and even some Principals and Deputies took industrial action recently. They were protesting at the Western Australian government’s proposed cuts to staffing and school budgets. In a great display of solidarity, those at the coal face of education let the politicians know, in the strongest way they could, that what are claimed as “education reforms” are in fact savage cuts to school funds and a reduction of staff who facilitate worthwhile education support programmes.
To show how much they cared, the teachers, their assistants and administrators went on strike. They withdrew their labour. Consequently, they all sacrificed a half a day’s pay to make their point. Very commendable. As someone said, you cannot make an omelette without cracking eggs, which is a much nicer way of saying that there is no gain without some pain.
Their industrial actions reminded me of a time back in the late 1970s when I was faced with the dilemma of taking industrial action and sacrificing a full day’s pay. Memory fades but I think it was 1978 and the Teachers Union was in dispute with the Education Department over a proposed change to the Education Regulations which had to do with the definition of “Misconduct”. A teacher found guilty of misconduct can be dismissed. The Department was attempting to widen the definition of misconduct, which it said was in everyone’s best interests. Wisely, teachers knew differently and their union called for a one day strike in protest. I think it was around the same time that the then Premier, Sir Charles Court, passed law 54B which said that a gathering of three or more people could be deemed to be an unlawful gathering, so there was a bit of militancy in the air.
At that time my official title was Deputy Principal – Primary, Donnybrook District High School. In this position I was the Principal of 280 primary school children and the 12 or so full time and part time teachers. I shared an office with the Secondary Deputy Principal, my very good friend, Clem Combes. Clem  and I had some great adventures together, but he has since passed away and is sadly missed by me. As it happened, I was also the President of the Donnybrook District High School branch of the Teachers’ Union and Clem was the branch Secretary/Treasurer.
I became the union’s branch president soon after I first moved to Donnybrook in 1975. On a hot Friday afternoon in late February I was invited to attend the Annual General Meeting of the school’s branch of the teachers union. The meeting was to be held at Clem’s house, which was situated about ten kilometres out of town on very pretty farmland belonging to his wife’s family. The invitation was also extended to my wife and family. We were told to bring some meat, salad and refreshments, as the practice was to have a pleasant barbecue after the union meeting finished. Oh, and don’t forget your bathers. Clem has a pool.
Being new to the district, I travelled rather slowly along strange and narrow roads.  I arrived with my wife and children about ten minutes after the union meeting had commenced. After exchanging the usual greetings and introductions, Clem, who was conducting the meeting, promptly vacated the chair and informed me, that in my absence I had been nominated to fill the position of Branch President of the Union and that my nomination had been accepted unanimously. I can also say that not only had my nomination been accepted unanimously but, when Clem announced the situation to me, it brought forth gales of raucous laughter and much merriment from the staff members and their spouses. Welcome to Donnybrook.
 Clem later explained that the school principal was almost invariably the President of the union branch. In those days that was quite true. In most country towns the principal was usually the union branch president. Up until the early 1980s the position of president of the SSTUWA was invariably filled by a working primary or secondary school principal or deputy principal.
The school’s union meeting lasted for about thirty minutes. The following barbecue lasted for about seven hours. It went well into the early hours of Saturday. We all made good use of Clem’s pool as we enjoyed each others’ company and learned a little about each other on that warm summer night. 
For the reader worried about the welfare of children at this late night soiree I will point out that in the country everyone drives  station wagons in which children are safely bedded down on mattresses, pillows and rugs and they are checked on regularly.
The next morning I awoke with the knowledge that, not only was I now the new President of the school’s branch of the teachers’ union, but that my wife and I had fallen in with group of very dedicated party lovers. I felt good about that. Unfortunately, that morning, my head was also letting me know that party lovers have to pay the consequences. I felt bad about that for most of the day.
Life in Donnybrook was more than pleasant. I found that I enjoyed being responsible for the primary school, working with very good staff and supportive parents in the interests of the children. The social life was also more than pleasant. There was the tennis club and golf club and I also became actively involved with the cricket and the football clubs. I organised the junior under 15 cricket team which played home and away fixtures against teams from other towns on Saturday mornings. In the afternoons I umpired one of the senior cricket games at Egan Park. There were three senior cricket teams in Donnybrook; The Colts, The Old Boys and The Footballers. Donnybrook people are very friendly folk. They are also generally very independent and fiercely competitive. Games between any of the three Donnybrook teams were played at a combative level just one grade below that of all out warfare. They made Ashes Test Matches look like games of Ring around Rosie at the local kindergarten. Umpiring, to say the least,  was very interesting. 

Despite the very persistent sledging and the angry and aggressive short pitched bowling on display during their cricket matches, the players from both sides were always able to meet at the local hotel after the game for a social occasion and have a friendly chat and a drink or two, or three or four or more! At least until the fights broke out! Well, it wasn’t called Donnybrook for nothing.
Apart from my role in the teachers union, at the end of 1975 I became Secretary of the Donnybrook Football Club. This eventually led to me being appointed as the club’s first General Manager in late 1976, or indeed the first General Manager of any club in the South West National Football League. But that really is another story.
Yes, life in Donnybrook was much more than pleasant. Life was beautiful. It was like being gently massaged with a warm and soothing ointment, then, one day in 1978, a fly flew into the ointment. I read in the West Australian that teachers were not happy with the department’s plans to change the Education Regulations and that industrial action was likely. A day or two later I received a notice from the Teachers’ Union that a strike had been called for the following Tuesday.
As branch President I called an after school meeting of union members, which comprised about 75% of the 30 staff, primary and secondary.  Donnybrook people are on the whole independent and conservative and not really in favour of unions or strike action of any kind. Because of the Education Department’s “Cupid Effect” many of the female teachers were married to local farmers who were particularly not in favour of strike action.
The “Cupid Effect” is the phenomenon caused by the Education Department sending beautiful young ladies out to country teaching positions where they soon form romantic attachments with robust and enthusiastic farm boys. This generally leads to matrimony. Especially prone are the beautiful young girls that the department trains to be Home Economics teachers. Farm boys find it very hard to resist a beautiful girl who is also skilled in household and financial management procedures. They say in the Second World War the life expectancy of a tail gunner in combat was about two minutes. In the same way, Home Economics teachers last about two months before they are snapped up, generally by one of handsome sons of the district’s landed gentry. But I digress.
At the union branch meeting I informed those present about the call for a strike and the reasons why. I said everyone’s views on the matter should be respected. There was some discussion about what would happen to the children and what penalties could be invoked against anyone going on strike. I explained that non-union members would supervise the children and that anyone on strike would lose a day’s pay.
As it turned out only two staff members went on strike on that Tuesday, Clem Combes and I. Oh, solidarity, wherefore art thou?
Clem and I decided on the day of the strike that we would be better off staying well away from the school. We drove to Dunsborough and spent the morning fishing and enjoying an occasional stubby. Well, maybe more than just occasionally. It was quite an enjoyable morning, but we only managed to catch five very small herring who had obviously been separated from their main school. A bit like Clem and me, really. 

At around one o’clock we decided to pull up the anchor and head home. On the way back home Clem said that he had built a smoke box so that, after we had cleaned and filleted our catch, we could smoke them and then enjoy a late lunch with a cleansing ale or two. It sounded good to me. We set the fire going in the smoker and at the appropriate time inserted our measly catch. Those five filleted, smoked herring looked very small and lonely on the plate, so we topped up our late lunch with some bread, cheeses and dry biscuits.
Eventually, we were ready to eat. We savoured our smoked herring as if they were some epicurean masterpiece. As President of the Donnybrook branch of the teachers’ union I thought it appropriate to say a few words. I proposed a toast to ourselves, saying that Clem and I had struck a blow for teachers’ rights and thoroughly deserved our meal, even if it had cost us both a day’s pay.
“I’ll drink to that,” said Clem, “and I hope they taste nice because, at a cost of about a hundred dollars, plus petrol and drinks, they are the most expensive fish I have ever eaten.”
Well, at that price we probably didn’t get much value for our money. What we did get was a change of attitude by the Education Department. The regulations were not altered and industrial peace settled once more over the beautiful hamlet of Donnybrook.
Maybe we should have just stayed at home and made omelettes? 

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