On 20 November in Australia hundreds of teachers from dozens of schools across Victoria and Brisbane walked out to protest against the offshore detention of refugees.
The atmosphere was charged with excitement as teachers, plus hundreds of supporters, filled the State Library forecourt in Melbourne to demand the government bring all kids and adults off Nauru and Manus immediately.
Some teachers had organised large contingents from their school. Others had travelled from hours away, giving interviews to regional media outlets about their involvement in the walk-off before they left. There were union banners from every stage and kind of school.
The hundreds of teachers in Melbourne were surrounded by hundreds of others in contingents from the union movement and the refugee campaign, including contingents from Grandmothers against Detention, Rural Australians for Refugees, Labor for Refugees and Refugee Action Collective.
Hannah Clarke, a primary school teacher and a central organiser of the walk-off, spoke about her experience teaching a student who had spent five of his six short years on Nauru. “Some media and politicians reckon we should stick to our classrooms and keep out of politics,” she said. “But the fact is these government policies are affecting our classrooms and affecting our students. It’s falling on us to pick up the pieces of these young lives the government has broken.”
And two school students put it simply, “What we learned in Australian school is that detention is for if you have done something wrong. But refugees have done nothing wrong.”
Justin Mulally, Deputy President of the Australian Education Union (Victoria) congratulated teachers who had walked off, saying, “Thank you so much to all of you who have taken this step. As teachers, as principals, as support staff in schools, we can’t stand by when we know that children are being traumatised, we can’t stand by when we know their families are being damaged, and when we know that Scott Morrison is refusing to act.”
The support of the union movement has always been an important part of the refugee campaign. But the two-state walk-off off was a significant escalation for the movement. Besides the Yeronga teachers’ stopwork action in 2015 to support their detained student, Mojgan Shamsalipoor, the walk-off is the first explicit industrial action against government refugee policy.
In Victoria, a group of rank-and-file teachers, members of the Australian Education Union, took the initiative. The momentum of the #KidsOffNauru campaign set us in motion.
Teachers for Refugees activists in Victoria used the networks we built up from the t-shirt and “selfie” actions over the last three years to contact teachers to start organising contingents. We sent out “how-to-walk-off” guides, and with the support of Mums and Grandmas for Refugees we produced a letter to parents about why we were walking off, and how they could support us.
We kept sending out updates, making sure teachers knew we would still be walking out even when prime minister Morrison made his announcement that the kids would be all off Nauru by Christmas — we said we want them off now, and we want all the refugees off, not just children!
We knew some principals were facing a backlash from parents, or losing their nerve in the face of intimidating and discouraging department circulars, or confusing advice from the union. So we organised for parents and members of the local community to call principals to let them know they supported the walk-off.
We wrote media releases, opinion pieces, and requests for solidarity from across the union movement, and got hugely enthusiastic responses, including an invitation to speak at the CFMEU shop stewards meeting.
In Queensland, the teachers’ union sent an email to all members encouraging them to participate in the action.
The refugee campaign has forced Scott Morrison and the Liberals to start getting the children off Nauru to Australia. But this is nowhere near enough.
The walk-off was also a warning to the Labor Party that unionists are demanding an end to its support for offshore detention. Immediately, Labor could vote with The Greens and crossbench MPs for Independent Andrew Wilkie’s bill to get the last 17 kids off Nauru along with as all separated parents, as a step towards getting everyone off.
Teachers, unionists and the refugee campaign are on the offensive, and we will keep escalating until the camps are closed for good.