Denis Fitzgerald, Teachers and Their Times: History and the Teachers' Federation

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Denis Fitzgerald, Teachers and their Times: History and the Teachers' Federation, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2011. pp. 336. $39.95 paper.

If the New South Wales Teachers' Federation did not exist, Sydney's ever-excitable Daily Telegraph would be obliged to create it. From a Murdoch press point of view, the union fosters classroom mediocrity, supports incompetent teachers and kicks down the doors of a succession of seemingly hapless NSW education ministers, nailing the incumbents to the wall. But it's not just the Murdoch press that loves to hate the Federation. Even the slightly leftist Sydney Morning Herald refers to the Federation as a 'rogue union' (20 November 2010) that has a record of 'truculent behaviour' (23 January 2009). In that context, Denis Fitzgerald's useful narrative history of the Federation Teachers and their Times is a counter to many of the myths and war stories surrounding a union that has been in business since 1918 protecting its members from bureaucratic bungling, governmental bastardry and an increasingly shrill line in media calumny

You can tell where author Fitzgerald's sympathies lie from the start. He begins his narrative with the end of the Whitlam years (good, but not a Golden Age) and ends with the end of the Howard era ('joy and relief'). As a former Teachers' Federation president (1995-1997) and career teacher, Fitzgerald is well placed to give us an inside story, and, indeed, this is what a reader might expect. Starting in the mid-1970s, the author argues that the turning point in the Teachers' Federation's approach to militancy came in the period after the 1975 constitutional crisis when a new generation of teachers, in rejecting 'passivity in all things', maintained a generalised distrust of hierarchy and authority. To illustrate the point, there is wonderful photograph (pp. 8-9) of the 1976 Teachers' Federation executive. Of its sixteen members, six are women and only seven appear to be over thirty-five. Compare that photograph with the 1970 almost all-male, grey-haired executive committee and you can see the generational change at a glance. Indeed, the 1976 younger set look like members of a sociology class about to head off to a lecture by Howard Kirk, Malcolm Bradbury's egotistical 1970s History Man.

Fitzgerald sees the turbulent 1970s as a largely exasperating period in which his union was putting out industrial brush fires but was unable to deal with the straitjacket of federal wage fixing policy. The union did make some positive moves, accepting gender equality (sort of) and eventually electing Jennie George as its first woman President in 1986--but getting itself into 1970s hot water with its membership over gay rights. …