Advancing the role of teacher unions in shaping forces of neoliberalism that surround teacher’s work and conditions

Year: 2016

Author: Gavin, Mihajla

Type of paper: Refereed paper

Global educational reform underscored by neoliberal and marketised agendas has had a significant impact upon the work and lives of teachers working in public schools in New South Wales (NSW) and Australia more broadly since the mid-1980s. Within discussions about the impact of these pressures on the work and conditions of teachers (Connell 2014; Ball 2000, 2003), a notable silence exists around the role of trade unions which represent public school teachers (Carter, Stevenson and Passy 2010). Teacher unions play a central role in articulating teachers’ responses to educational reform and act as the main ‘voice’ representing the industrial and professional interests of their members and the teaching procession overall. The omission of teacher unions from research on educational reform and policymaking is of significant concern within the current climate of neoliberal educational reform as it limits understandings of how teacher unions can use their traditional base of power, influence and democratic voice to challenge neoliberal forces that affect teachers’ work and lives. This paper presents preliminary insights from a project which examines how the main teacher union representing public school teachers in NSW, the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation, has strategically responded to neoliberal forces affecting teachers in NSW. Using documentary analysis and interviews, this research applies concepts of strategic choice and planning (Kochan, Katz and McKersie 1986; Weil 2009) to the analysis of various union records (minutes, decisions, articles) to investigate how the Federation has attempted to protect and advance the interests of teachers across areas such as salaries, staffing and performance that have been affected by the neoliberal policies of successive NSW and Federal Governments since the mid-1980s. In particular, the research applies David Weil’s (2009) model of strategic choice to analyse how the Federation has utilised a process of strategy formation, implementation and evaluation to advance the interests of teachers in these areas. In doing so, this research will contribute to existing debates on whether teacher unions should advocate for the industrial or professional interests of teachers, and will expand more limited understandings of how teacher unions can deploy strategy to challenge neoliberal forces. By advancing a role for teacher unions within this context, this research calls for new approaches to understanding the forces of neoliberal educational reform surrounding teachers’ work and conditions.