Can teacher unions successfully influence neoliberal government policy in New South Wales to shape teachers' work and conditions?

Year: 2017

Author: Gavin, Mihajla

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Teacher unions operate within highly politicised neoliberal environments alongside various state actors that shape the outcomes and conditions of work for teachers. Within this environment, neoliberal education reform in New South Wales (NSW) has significantly transformed teachers' work and conditions in the public education system in recent decades. Literature in this area has examined how teachers have faced increased pressures of high-stakes testing, a growth in workload and work intensification, heightened performance and accountability measures, increased casualisation and an arguable de-professionalising of the teaching profession (Connell 2014; Ball 2003). How teacher unions have responded in neoliberal policy contexts to shape teachers' work and conditions (and the success of these responses) has attracted increasing attention by scholars (Carter, Stevenson and Passy 2010; Carter and Stevenson 2012). With the infiltration of neoliberal and marketised policy agendas in education, it is necessary to interrogate whether and how teacher unions can strategically influence governmental decision-making processes that affect outcomes for teachers in this politicised context and remain an effective collective voice acting in the interests of the teaching profession.

This paper presents findings from doctoral research which examines the relationship between the New South Wales Teachers' Federation and state actors, including the NSW Government and NSW Department of Education, since the mid-1980s to present. The findings of this qualitative study are based on in-depth interviews with 72 participants including union officials and activists, departmental officers and former NSW Ministers for Education as well as an analysis of key union documents. This paper applies David Weil's (2009) framework of trade union strategy to understand how the Teachers' Federation has utilised 'external leverage' in working with various state actors to shape the work outcomes and conditions for teachers in a neoliberal policy context. In applying this framework, this paper will consider the evolution of the Teachers' Federation relationship with these state actors over the last three decades and will provide an analysis of how the union has influenced governmental policy-making processes that affect outcomes for teachers. Specifically, it will present findings on the nature of political relationships with various Ministers for Education, consider whether the political party in power distorts outcomes for teachers, and will demystify the level of union insight into government decision-making and intricacies of the negotiation process. These issues will be discussed with reference to key campaigns affecting outcomes for teachers since the mid-1980s.