Writer Ian Munro profiles union delegate and United Voice Victorian President Kerrie Devir.
The battle may be lost but the war remains to be won.
Thirty years after she began her life’s work in early childhood education, Kerrie Devir could be forgiven for feeling a little frustrated about how the pendulum swings of national politics snatched away the gains for workers like her.
Kerrie, 47, became a poster girl for the Big Steps campaign for professional wages a bit by accident. Sure, she agreed to talk to the media about the need to professionalise the sector in order to keep experienced and dedicated people like herself. But when her photograph became an enduring element in the campaign even she was shocked.
Then, after Labor’s defeat on September 7, 2013, the promised $300 million fund to boost wages for early childhood educators was frozen by the incoming Coalition government. More than anyone, perhaps Kerrie had a right to be upset, but as she sees it a win for the sector is only a matter of time.
As Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd put early education on the agenda and the move was endorsed by his successor, Julia Gillard.
“You can’t put that genie back in the bottle any more, as if we are not important and valuable,” says Kerrie. “A Prime Minister acknowledged us. No educator is going to let you put that genie back.”
United Voice members generally are so crucial to the provision of essential services that they can be described as the backbone of society. That is as true of early education and child care educators as it is of cleaners, bakers, paramedics and hospitality staff. Kerrie says the Big Steps campaign over the past four years has changed early education and its practitioners in profound ways.
“Childhood educators spend most of our time with children. We don’t have a lot of time to network to become informed about the bigger picture. What this campaign has taught educators is that there are meetings happening that decide things about us: how much we are to be paid; what conditions we should expect and what is required of us by government and families
“We had never thought that we were entitled to be part of these meetings before this campaign. The department would present us with new standards, new rules and it’s given to you at a staff meeting. We have always just absorbed this and done it.
“I have not worked in this profession my whole career to walk away and see it less than it was. I don’t want to see good educators struggling the way I do. I want to leave it better. The union campaign and the union are both about getting a seat at that table where decisions are made about us.”
Kerri has seen the profession evolve out of hospital-based mother craft nursing to early childhood educators; from certificate courses to associate diplomas and on to full diplomas in child care.
Along the way she has lost many colleagues who have left the sector simply because it could not support them or did not value their skills.
Kerri points out that as families become more isolated from extended family, and thrown back on their own resources more than has been the case in the past, people like her are even more valuable. Their understanding of childhood development and the pressures families experience can offer a broad perspective on family life.
Educators are also in regular, daily or weekly contact with families which makes easier the exchange of ideas and insights into children. While they are valued by the families they work with, and as they become increasingly professional in their training and qualifications, that is not reflected in their pay and conditions.
Kerrie says that she will never own her own home, nor can she imagine being able to afford to retire. Her own finances are irretrievable, no pay rise could make up for three decades of inadequate pay, but she wants better for those who will follow her.
“Wages are the way industry says we value you. I get thanks every single day from the children and the families, but that does not pay my bills and doesn’t make my life that easy. I am still left with a struggle. Yes, I struggled with a poor wage in my 20s, but I did not think I would be still there in my mid-40s. And if I devoted my life to this profession why am I still in this position 20 years later?
“If I were a wiser person or a less passionate person I probably should have got out of child care 10 years ago. Possibly then I might have been able to salvage things. Being part of this campaign was the hope that we could improve it enough that I could stay and that also we would keep the good people in the profession that are already here.”
Kerrie says her father, who was a factory labourer and an admirer of Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam, would have got a big kick out of his daughter lobbying a later Prime Minister on behalf of her fellow workers.
Kerrie also knows that the opportunity to leave an impression on the country’s leaders has not passed.
“I feel sorry for (the Coalition). They don’t know what is going to happen next,” she says.