Supporting the independent education community

Opinion: Alarm bells ring about Catholic restructure (Newcastle Herald)

 

Mark Northam, Independent Education Union of Australia NSW/ACT Branch Secretary

 

The Independent Education Union, which represents teachers and support staff in Catholic diocesan schools, is deeply concerned about a proposed restructure within the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Schools Office that will impact more than 2000 staff and the 20,000 students they support.

 

The CSO, the main employer of school staff, is responsible for operating and managing almost 60 Catholic schools in the Hunter region. Under the proposed restructure, the CSO would be dismantled; the Director of Schools role would be eliminated; and schools would report directly to the church.

 

The Diocese proposes to transfer psychologists, counsellors and other student support roles to CatholicCare, its social services agency. CatholicCare employees are generally placed on the Modern Award – put simply, a union-negotiated agreement is not in place. And so far, the employees impacted by the restructuring proposal have not been given any assurances their current entitlements will be retained and transferred to the new entity. These employees are education specialists who belong in schools.

 

Education Officers would form a small group known as the Education Establishment and Operations Unit reporting to the Chief Operations Officer. Professional Officers would be transferred in a diocesan shared services model. School cleaners and IT support staff also appear to be vulnerable to ‘restructuring’. The union has strong reservations about this corporatisation of education.

 

The Maitland-Newcastle Diocese has a rich and proud history that includes a close relationship with the Independent Education Union. The dignity of organised labour has long been respected. Pope Francis has recently said that without trade unions, “a decent and humane society is impossible under capitalism”. But at its core, this latest announcement from the Diocese seeks to marginalise the union.

 

The union questions the loss of both a Director and Assistant Directors from the CSO – positions that are currently held by people with extensive educational experience. Schools need this support structure.

 

Several years ago, the union took a similar matter to the Fair Work Commission and, while the Commissioner expressed considerable support for the IEU’s position, the union didn’t win the day. Our members’ roles were sliced and diced, and some lost their jobs. It is little wonder our alarm bells are ringing loudly at the announcement of yet another restructure.

 

It appears the scene is being set for at least some positions to be outsourced, and the union strongly opposes this. Experience shows us it can result in poor services and lower wages. School principals tell us it is far superior to have cleaners on site who are familiar with the school, its students and their needs – and the only way to achieve this is through continuity of employment underpinned by a union agreement.

 

The union is also concerned this restructure will result in greater complexity for school principals, who will have to engage in cumbersome processes to gain the services they need to run their schools. This restructure proposes to devolve decision-making onto individual principals while support for them at the diocesan level diminishes.

 

The IEU urges the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese to engage in genuine consultation with its employees through their representative union over the next six weeks. We also urge them to extend the consultation period by two weeks to compensate for the two weeks that fall within the upcoming school holidays.

 

The Fair Work Act deals extensively with what consultation means, and we trust this is abundantly clear to the Diocese. It is inappropriate to instigate changes without considering the concerns of the staff who do the jobs and who are directly affected. In this case, it is not just the CSO staff, but the teachers and students they support. We can only imagine that the parents of students who need these services would be very concerned.

 

The IEU has already met with affected staff and school principals, and further union meetings will be convened. IEU members will be calling for union-negotiated agreements, especially for the proposed new Education Unit, and for restoration of an education-trained Director. The union will support cleaners who are currently covered by an enterprise agreement. Outsourcing is not the way forward.