Issues in Educational Research, 8(1), 1998, 49-63.

Enterprise bargaining: Experiences of non government schools in Western Australia

Fiona Leck
Aranmore Catholic College, Perth
Rod Chadbourne
Edith Cowan University, Perth

This study examines the impact of the change from award restructuring to enterprise bargaining upon Western Australian non government school teachers' employment conditions, productivity and industrial contestation. Data for the study came from interviews with representatives of the teams that negotiated them. The findings show that enterprise bargaining has increased the difference between teachers' salaries but made little difference to student learning, school work organisation and teacher unionism. In short, like the old 'award' system, the 'new industrial relations' operates primarily as a vehicle for safeguarding teachers' rights and interests. People who hoped it would serve as a lever for educational reform may have to look elsewhere to achieve their aims.

Until recently, teachers' employment conditions in Australia were decided by state industrial relations commissions which handed out an award. The award was binding on all employers and legally enforceable. In 1993, changes to Australia's industrial relations legislation allowed negotiations between teacher employers and unions to move from centralised award restructuring to the more decentralised process of enterprise bargaining.

So far, a lot has been written on award restructuring and enterprise bargaining at a conceptual, political and philosophical level. For example, teacher union and education department periodicals contain numerous position statements and discussion papers. Also, academics have produced critiques of award restructuring and enterprise bargaining in the school sector from a policy analysis perspective: (eg. Ashenden, 1990; Angus, 1991; Bluer and Carmichael, 1991, Knight et al, 1992; Riley, 1991; Zbar, 1991; Macpherson and Riley, 1992; Seddon, 1996). However, very little has been written on the implementation of either award restructuring or enterprise bargaining. Some research has outlined what happened in practice with the Advanced Skills Teacher classification (eg. Chadbourne & Ingvarson, 1991, 1995; Gaffney & Crowther, 1993; Currey, 1994; Ingvarson & Chadbourne, 1994, 1996). But research on the implementation of enterprise bargaining in schools and education systems is difficult to find.

Aims of the study

Given the nature of enterprise bargaining, the type of agreements negotiated between teachers and their employers can vary from education system to education system and school to school, depending on what is defined as the 'enterprise'. A useful way to document the complexity of such variations is through a series of case studies. As a contribution to that end, this article presents the findings of one such study carried out in Western Australia. The study involved comparing five enterprise agreements in the independent school sector and interviewing representatives of the employers and teachers who negotiated them. Using data from those sources, a general aim was to identify similarities and differences between the five agreements and participants' perceptions of what they meant. More specifically, the study aimed to investigate three broad questions:

Contextual background

At present, three types of employment contracts can exist or co-exist within non-government schools in regard to a teacher's conditions of employment, namely: the award, enterprise agreements and workplace agreements. For the most part, independent or non-government schools within Western Australia (WA) have chosen to use enterprise agreements as the means by which to alter the conditions of employment for teachers. In this context, an enterprise agreement is an agreement made between an employer and the Independent Schools' Salaried Officers Association (ISSOA), in conjunction with employees, in relation to some or all of the conditions of employment, using and retaining the award as the basis of the conditions that apply. The award is the set of minimum legal conditions of employment that apply to a specific group of employees within the industry to which the award relates. The award is binding on all employers within that industry and is legally enforceable. In the case of non-government schools in WA this is the Independent Schools' Teachers award.

Within the non-government sector of education most schools have some religious affiliation. For example, many belong to the Catholic Education system, others are Anglican, and yet others belong to the Uniting Church. All schools belonging to the Catholic Education system have chosen to bargain collectively as a system. This means that all teachers within the Catholic sector are covered by the same enterprise agreement. Most of the schools belonging to the other religious denominations have chosen to bargain individually at the school level. Consequently, there are a number of different enterprise agreements covering the employment conditions of teachers within independent schools in WA.


The five enterprise bargaining agreements chosen for this study came from: the Catholic Education Sector, Anglican Schools Commission, Stratford Grammar School, Amberfield Ladies College, and Swan Community School. (The names of the three individual schools in this list are pseudonyms). Two of these agreements apply at the 'system level', as opposed to individual school, and they represent different Christian denominations. The remaining three agreements are registered on behalf of individual schools. Two of these schools are 'well off' because of the high socio-economic status of the majority of their clientele. The third is a parent run school with no religious affiliation.

Data for comparing the conditions of employment were collected directly from the documents themselves; that is, the individual enterprise agreements which are registered with the Industrial Relations Commission. Taped interviews were conducted to gather the participants' perceptions of what the bargaining process involved. The people interviewed consisted of a representative from the employer and the employee negotiating team at each school and the Secretary of the Independent Schools' Salaried Officers Association (ISSOA). The ISSOA officer was selected because the union played a role in each of the agreements; in some cases it was in an advisory capacity, and in others it was through the officer's direct involvement as a member of the employee negotiating team. Each interview lasted about fifty minutes, was recorded on audiocassette, and a typed transcript was returned to each participant for validation.

Whilst no predetermined conceptual framework from the academic field of industrial relations was employed to inform data analysis, the study was based on assumptions underlying qualitative research. (Glesne & Peskin, 1992; Maykut & Morehouse, 1994). These assumptions distinguish the qualitative mode of inquiry from the positivist or quantitative paradigm. In broad terms, they include postulates such as: there are multiple social realities rather than one external reality; these realities are socially constructed rather than formed independently of people's feelings, values and interests; and investigating social realities requires a focus on contextualisation, interpretation and understanding actors' perspectives rather than generalisation, prediction and causal explanations. Much of the literature portrays industrial relations as consisting of 'objective facts', such as public policy frameworks, labour markets, industrial courts and commissions, workers, bosses and unions, collective action, and formal authority and procedural rules. From a qualitative research perspective, however, these variables are not fixed and easily measured in isolation from each other. Rather, they are complex, interwoven and vary according to the actors' interpretations of situations they define themselves as being in. Given the focus of this study, then, some of the underlying assumptions can be listed as follows:

When analysing the documents to determine similarities and differences, the following components were examined: salaries, duties other than teaching (DOTT) time, long service leave, extra curricula requirements, professional development, payment for relief teachers, and the process by which the enterprise agreement was reached. A number of other clauses were included, such as parties to the agreement, scope of the agreement, expiration of the agreement, no extra claims, and objects of the agreement. These were fairly uniform across each of the agreements being studied. They represented a means of satisfying the industrial/legal formalities of the agreements, and did not indicate differences in the employment conditions of the teachers covered by those agreements.


The following themes emerged from a comparison of the five agreements and an analysis of the comments made by members of the negotiating teams:

Increased diversity in teachers' employment conditions

Prior to the introduction of enterprise bargaining, all teachers in independent schools in Western Australia were covered by the same award. This meant that conditions of employment were basically the same in most independent schools within the state. They were not identical. Even under the award structure, schools were able to address their own specific staff workload expectations (eg. additional extra-curricula supervision) by making over-the-award payments. However, as the ISSOA representative explained, “There would not have been too many schools [previously] that would have paid the level of over-the-award payments that is the difference in the current enterprise agreements.” Not surprisingly, then, most of the other people interviewed said that enterprise bargaining has widened the differences in conditions and salaries of teachers between the various schools.

Differences between the five agreements

Of the five enterprise agreements under consideration in this study, two began in 1994, one in 1995 and two in 1996. There are a number of differences between the five agreements. The most notable is salary. For example, as at July 1996 teachers on top of the salary scale, but not in a promotional position, earned between $40 859 and $44 760 (a difference of almost 10%) depending on which enterprise agreement they were covered by. Carers' leave also differs; only two of the five agreements include it. A third difference lies in the area of long service leave (LSL). In most cases a teacher accrues LSL at the rate of 1.25 or 1.3 weeks per year of continuous service. In the Catholic Education Sector agreement, however, the second and successive lots of LSL are accrued at the rate of 1.86 weeks per year. This is significantly higher than in the other agreements and it reduces the qualifying time for subsequent lots of long service leave by approximately two years. Of these differences, the only one which both the employer and the employee representatives regarded as significant was that related to salary. Carer's leave and long service leave were not considered to be top priority conditions.

The participants provided a number of reasons for the differences in salary levels between the various agreements. Some believed that the different demands placed on the staff by the different schools required extra pay for doing extra work. Another reason was the capacity to pay. The different agreements reflect a range in the level of government funding received by the five schools, and a large variation in the fees they charge. A third reason was competition for the best teachers. If a school paid the best salary, said some interviewees, then it automatically followed that they would get the best teachers. This competition for the best teachers reflects part of the ideological framework within which enterprise agreements have emerged; that is, the use of market place principles to determine who is strong and should survive, and who is weak and should go under. According to this ideology, an internationally competitive economy can not afford non-contributors, or those not seeking to continually improve. The perceived means by which to encourage schools and teachers to strive for improvement is to promote competition between them. A fourth reason given for the differences in salaries was the different priorities held by the different schools. In two cases the inability to afford greater increases was seen as a lame excuse and was dismissed with a fair degree of scepticism by the employees. The teachers did not feel that they were presented with all of the information, and in fact felt that teacher salaries were not a priority for their employers.

Similarities between the five agreements

The five agreements contain a number of similarities. One is a clause relating to the payment of relief teachers, which allowed 'reliefs' to be engaged by the half-day if employed for five days or less. Another is the inclusion, in four agreements, of similar clauses relating to the probationary nature of first teaching appointments, the right of a school to adapt the structure of its promotional positions, and the entitlement of teachers to a fair and reasonable meal break during playground supervision.

The common inclusion of these clauses seems to have arisen for two reasons. Firstly, because they covered conditions which formed part of the Memorandum of Agreement reached between the Association of Independent Schools in Western Australia (AISWA) and the ISSOA prior to the start of enterprise bargaining. This memorandum was used as a pro forma by each of the schools or systems when they first started enterprise bargaining negotiations. Hence, they all started with the same basic structure. Secondly, each of these conditions is fairly non-contentious, being of benefit to the employer while having very little impact on employees. For example, the ability to pay relief teachers by the half day for the first five days is obviously a cost saving measure for the employer. At the same time it has no impact on the actual teachers within the school/system who were party to the agreement as they are not relief teachers.

All the agreements, except the parent run school one, are similar in another sense; they all omit the same conditions, including DOTT time and class sizes. Each of these items was raised during the bargaining process, by the employee negotiating teams, but agreement could not be reached on their inclusion. As salary was considered to be the major issue, the teachers decided to treat these items as issues for ongoing discussion, rather than hold up proceedings.

Improved working conditions but not increased productivity

Approximately half of the employer and teacher representatives considered that teachers are better off under enterprise bargaining than the award. This belief appeared to rest largely on the fact that salaries for teachers have increased significantly since the introduction of enterprise bargaining agreements. (It should be noted that these increases followed a period of stagnation where teachers had not received a pay increase for three years.) According to some people interviewed, teachers are better catered for by enterprise bargaining because the negotiated agreements can be tailored to the specific circumstances of each school or system. Other members of the negotiating teams, both employers and teachers, were of the opinion that the current conditions gained under enterprise bargaining could just as easily have been achieved under the award structure.

There does not appear to be any sort of pattern to the types of schools supporting or opposing enterprise bargaining. One might have expected that those schools which obtained salaries at the higher end of the scale would be in favour of it, whilst those at the lower end would be against it. This view, however, was not reflected in the interview data.

The conditions contained in the five enterprise bargaining agreements related mainly to industrial matters. Although some agreements contained clauses relating to teacher appraisal and professional development, in the main their focus was more industrial than educational. Evidently, the schools did not take the opportunity to use enterprise bargaining as a lever for the type of educational reform that might raise the 'productivity of teaching and learning'. For example, the employers did not use improvements in teachers' employment conditions as a bargaining chip to introduce a potentially more flexible and productive work organisation in schools, such as the implementation of multi-age grouping, or shift schooling. (Angus, 1991; Chadbourne, 1992; Ladwig et al. 1994; Louden and Wallace, 1994)

Within this context, several employers developed the impression that since teachers could not offer increased productivity in return for a pay rise, and since significant restructuring was not a viable option, then enterprise bargaining in the true sense was not actually occurring.

Increased use of amateurs

Under the traditional system, one award, the Independent School Teachers Award, covered all teachers in all WA independent schools. Given the number of people involved, it was obviously impossible within such a structure for teachers and employers from all schools to participate in discussions. Instead, the employees were represented by the ISSOA before the Industrial Relations Commission, and similarly the employers had their own representatives. These people tended to be full time, experienced, trained professionals. As the following discussion indicates, enterprise bargaining is carried out by a larger number of people, most of whom in non-systemic schools are untrained in industrial negotiating strategies.

Structure and operation of the negotiating teams

Figure 1 shows that in three of the five agreements, the two negotiating teams (employer and employee) had an equal number of representatives. This number varied from three to five. The agreements covering Amberfield Ladies College and the Anglican Schools Commission, however, were reached by negotiation between teams which were not equal in number. In both cases, the employees outnumbered the employers. This was not considered to be a cause for concern because matters relating to an enterprise agreement are not voted on; all conditions must be agreed on by both sides before an agreement can be formally ratified. Consequently the employers in both agreements felt quite comfortable with the unequal numbers.

In the two cases where the employees outnumbered the employer representatives, it might be expected that the teachers would get a better deal purely because of their numbers. This was not so, however, as one of those agreements contained salaries and conditions at the top end of the scale, while the other was at the lower end.

Agreement Negotiation teamsTrainingChairMeeting times
Stratford Grammar School 4 employee reps
4 employer reps
Western Australian Catholic Schools 5 employee reps
5 employer reps
yesemployerduring school
Amberfield Ladies College 3 employee reps
1 employer rep
yesnooutside school
Swan Community School 3 employee reps
3 employer reps
nonooutside school
Anglican Schools Commission 9 employee reps
6 employer reps

Figure 1: Structure of the negotiation teams

In all five agreements, the school ISSOA representative was on the employee negotiating team. Other teacher representatives were chosen by means of staff elections. Where the agreement covered primary and secondary teachers, elections were structured in such a way as to ensure that both were represented on the teacher negotiating team.

The structure of the five employer negotiating teams varied. In all schools, apart from Swan Community School, the principal was a member of the team. Further members came from of the Board of Governors or School Council in two agreements, and from the system authority in two other agreements. At Amberfield Ladies College, the only employer representative was the principal. The lack of concern about the imbalance here was also underpinned by the absence of an adversarial industrial relations tradition and culture within the College.

Several of the agreements were reached with the aid of a chairperson during discussions. In one school this position alternated from year to year; one year it was a teacher and the next a member of the employer's team. In two of the agreements the chairperson was from the employer side; however, in one of these it was determined that in the next round of enterprise negotiations an independent chair, to be selected by mutual agreement, would be used.

The frequency of meetings varied not only between agreements, but also at different stages in the negotiation process. They occurred anywhere from once a week to once every six weeks. Of the five agreements, two were negotiated totally outside of school time, one during school hours, and two through a combination of in-school and out-of-school hours. The overall negotiating time for each of the five agreements varied from eight to eighteen months.

Several points emerge from these findings. First, formulating and finalising enterprise bargaining agreements can involve a greater range and number of participants than settling centralised industrial awards. Secondly, enterprise bargaining agreements allow for a greater variation in the structure and composition of negotiating bodies than is the case with awards. However, none of these differences adequately accounts for the variation between the five agreements examined in this study. One observation, however, can be made with respect to the considerable commonality that characterise the five agreements. As a matter of speculation, and further research, it may be the case the having an ISSOA representative on all employee negotiating teams serves a strong moderating function. If so, advocates of a centralised industrial relations system would argue for the retention of the ISSOA representative's role, whereas advocates of a school-based industrial system might press for its removal.

Bargaining strategies

In only three of the five agreements did the negotiating teams receive any training. In most cases this took the form of a half or one day workshop. Apparently most of the negotiating teams did little preparation for the bargaining process. They did not plan what they would say, or anticipate what arguments the other side might present and how to counter them. Most employee teams entered the discussions with little more than a staff wish list. In similar vein, the employers entered the negotiations with little more than the knowledge of what they could afford to pay. In only one of the agreements did both parties appear to try to anticipate what the reactions of the other side might be, consider counter-arguments and plan what concessions they might offer.

The general lack of preparation and planning on the part of the negotiating teams seems somewhat surprising. We assumed at the beginning of the study, that in order to negotiate the best terms possible, each side would prepare a thorough bargaining plan. Yet this did not appear to be the case in most of the negotiations. Was this due to trust in the integrity of the other team, inexperience, opposition to the use of political manoeuvring and tactics in an 'educational arena', or some other reason? As a limited exploratory study, our research data does not provide an answer to this question, but further investigations of later agreements would throw light on these issues.

Continued teacher unionism and contestation

According to most participants in this study, enterprise bargaining has not weakened the position of the union. In Western Australia the ISSOA has always been involved in all salary negotiations for non-government school teachers; a situation that many teachers were not fully aware of. Also, under enterprise bargaining, teachers have been forced to take a more active role in industrial negotiations. They have had to become more 'industrially aware', and rely heavily on the expertise of the union in order to do so.

One of the advantages of enterprise bargaining, cited by many interviewees, even those who believed that they would be just as well off under the award system, was that it involved both employees and employers sitting down and talking to each other.

Enterprise bargaining requires employee and employer teams to come face to face to negotiate an agreement. Conflicts of interest, values, perceptions, and personality can lead to tension and hostility, as can a history of struggle between the two sides. Even the process itself may create conflict. Because enterprise bargaining is a new industrial process the rules may not yet be completely clear to all parties. This too can create tension and apprehension. Judging from what was said in the interviews, such feelings appeared to be quite common.

The level of tension between opposing teams during negotiations varied significantly from one agreement to the next. In one case, representatives on both sides referred to the atmosphere as “heated” and “antagonistic”. At the other end of the continuum, relations between negotiators were described as “very positive”. A similar range of difference was found with respect to the frequency of tension. With some of the agreements, employer and teacher representatives described the tension as continual, while in another it was claimed that “initially we all felt we were part of one big happy family, but there were definitely tensions that came up during the time”. Figure 2 attempts to portray these differences in the form of a two dimensional matrix. One dimension represents the level of tension between both parties, ranging from high to low. The other dimension represents the frequency of tension between the two parties, ranging from intermittent to continual. A situation where relations between the two negotiating parties were quite antagonistic throughout the entire process would be represented in the top right hand corner of this matrix. Agreements which were attained through an amicable, co-operative atmosphere would be placed in the bottom left hand corner.

For reasons of sensitivity, relations in each of the five agreements are marked with a cross on the matrix but the schools/systems are not identified. It can be noticed that all five lie in either the top right or bottom left quadrants. As the frequency of tension increased so too did the level of tension.

Figure 2: Relations matrix

Four out of five of the agreements were characterised by some form of tension between the employees and employers during negotiations, while tension was virtually non existent in the fifth school. In some instances the tension was only apparent at certain stages of the negotiation process. At times, tension reached the point of outright hostility. The reasons given for the tensions which existed appear to be twofold. In some cases the participants felt that the employer was uncomfortable having to negotiate on equal terms with an employee. After all many schools still operate within a traditional hierarchical structure, and neither the teachers nor the employers were used to any form of collaborative decision making. The second most commonly cited reason was distrust of the other party. Employees in particular felt that whilst everything they did was open and above board, the same could not be said of the employer negotiating team. On the other hand, the employer negotiating team in one agreement believed that the employees exaggerated their level of discontent as a bargaining technique. In the fifth agreement, relations between the two bargaining teams appeared to have remained positive throughout.

Generally, the agreements which provide teachers with the better conditions belong to the bottom left quadrant of the relations matrix (Figure 2), whilst those at the other end of the spectrum belong to the top right quadrant. This indicates a definite relationship between the type of inter-team relations that prevailed during the negotiations and the conditions obtained. What it does not indicate, however, is whether the conditions obtained in the enterprise agreement are a result of the type of inter-team relations experienced during negotiations, or whether these relations are a consequence of the conditions in the agreement.

Closing comments

The advantages of enterprise bargaining as identified by the participants in this study are that: it is quicker to implement and change than the award; it can be tailored to a school's own specific circumstances; and it involves employers and employees discussing matters relevant to the school and to teachers' working conditions. On the other hand, enterprise bargaining was seen to widen the differences in employment conditions and salaries between the various schools, and consequently divide teachers across the profession. Some participants questioned its appropriateness in the education sector, where valid and agreed upon indices of increased productivity seemed too difficult to establish.

In light of these mixed feelings, it should come as no surprise that opinion on the overall worth of enterprise bargaining was fairly evenly divided. Five of the interviewees said they would prefer to revert to the award system, three expressed a preference for enterprise bargaining, and the remaining three were ambivalent. The following comments are a brief sample of their feelings.

Award supporters

My preference and that of most of our team would have been to go back to the award. Enterprise bargaining was taking up too much time, it was causing too much division within the school, and these trade-offs and productivity gains aren't there, or we would gain them through the normal management process. (A boy's school employer representative)

I would return to the award because there are less hassles and, with the majority of other teachers, I could get on with teaching. (A parent-run school teacher representative)

Enterprise agreement supporters
I think enterprise bargaining has worked well. We had a vote and all the staff wanted it to continue. It gives us a chance to discuss things with the employer. (A boys' school teacher representative)

Enterprise bargaining is a better system in relation to the outcomes. I think there's enormous potential for both teachers and employers under the enterprise bargaining system, but no one is using it. (ISSOA representative)

A middle ground supporter
I'd really like to see some sort of middle ground. I think there has to be some system for the small schools, that don't have the resources and time to put into it, to come to a reasonable salary level. (A girl's school employer representative)
Despite these mixed feelings, at a practical level enterprise bargaining is clearly in the ascendancy in WA independent schools. The findings of this study suggest, however, that the advocates of enterprise bargaining may have only won a battle, not the war. Winning that war could depend on the capacity of enterprise bargaining to deliver improvements not only in teachers' employment conditions but also in student learning. Indeed, the more enterprise bargaining can lead to enhanced student outcomes, the less it can be dismissed as simply a vehicle for the promotion of vested interests and political ideology.


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Please cite as: Leck, F. & Chadbourne, R. (1998). Enterprise bargaining: Experiences of non government schools in Western Australia. Issues in Educational Research, 8(1), 49-63.

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