Militant (and illegal) strikes by teachers and other school employees in the US won major gains earlier this year; it’s an example worth emulating. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

by Don Franks

“In 2018, we’ll be making the message loud and clear – It’s Time. Time to lead, teach and learn. This means freeing teachers to teach so every child receives the personal attention they need to learn and thrive. It means freeing principals to focus on leading and it means ensuring we have enough teachers by attracting more people to teaching, by respecting them as professionals and paying them properly.

“We currently have a growing teacher shortage crisis already showing itself in our schools, which looks set to worsen with growing student numbers and less (sic) people training to become teachers.

“Our students come to school to learn all the skills and abilities that they’ll need to grow up healthy, happy and productive in the 21st century. Our nation can afford to ensure every child receives the education they need to succeed in life, and for every educator to be trusted and resourced to make that a reality. It’s simply a matter of priorities.

“As we go through negotiations for the Primary Teachers’ Collective Agreement this year, we’ll be standing together for our students and for an education system that values, attracts and retains the amazing teachers who are entrusted with the education of our children.”

So says the New Zealand Educational Institute, the union for primary school teachers.  It’s the NZEI union office lead piece on the teachers’ impending pay struggle. 

The  campaign title page carries no target figure, no specific claims argued, no bottom line. Payment is barely mentioned in passing.  NZEI’s “loud clear message” is an abstract empty slogan “Time to lead, teach and learn”.

The original claim of 16% over two years appears further down, inside the document, beside the government counter offer of 3% over three years .

The union office does not make any defence of the original offer. It says in relation to the counter offer:

“Do you think the increase offered is sufficient to address the recruitment and retention issues?”

“Do you think there is enough benefit in the current offer to accept a 3 year term?”

Reasonable negotiation or the thin end of a sell-out?

Does it matter if the NZEI choose to waffle like this?

Yes, it does. Harder signal of intent is required for the workers NZEI represents. Teachers’ conditions have been steadily worsening . Back in 1979, backbench MPs  and experienced teachers earned roughly the same amount ($18,000 a year). Now the basic MP’s salary is more than twice as much as what a senior teacher earns.

Consequently, NZEI members voted earlier this year to demand a 16 percent pay increase over two years.

On September 26 teachers and principals voted decisively to reject the government’s offer.  The deal would have increased pay by 3 percent per year, for three years. The offer contained no provisions for reducing workloads and class sizes and no committed funding to support children with additional learning needs. 

The offer barely improved on the previous rejected by NZEI members, who previously voted down a proposed increase of just over 2 percent per year. 

On August 15th 29,000 teachers and principals struck for 24 hours. During that strike NZEI president Lynda Stuart told the media that the government was “highly aligned with the policies we agree with. . . I’m sure that they are listening.”

The government is listening, with ears of cloth. Addressing a teachers’ rally, prime minister Jacinda Ardern was concerned only with deflecting demands, responding:

“The last speaker said we need radical change – yes; I guess the only point we would make is, unfortunately, sometimes radical change takes time.”

But radical change, now, is what teachers need.

Living costs have steadily risen over the past decade, especially housing, which has increased 62.9 percent. 

Today’s teaching environment imposes its own extra costs for the workers involved.

Schools in working class areas are hard hit by poverty. Fairfax Media reported on September 16 that at one Auckland school, teachers “might spend $1,000 out of their own pockets every year” on food, classroom supplies, sports equipment, clothes, shoes and bus fares.

In face of these urgent needs, will the union lead or, as is looking more likely, will NZEI follow the demoralising pattern of the New Zealand Nurses’ Organisation pay dispute?

The NZNO leaders presented five unsatisfactory offers, ignoring many members’ arguments for stronger action. Workers lost heart as negotiations dragged on for almost a year. The union echoed government spin that there was “no more money” to address the crisis caused by health system underfunding. The final result for nurses was a 9 percent pay rise spread over three years, just above the rate of inflation. An additional result of the negotiation was worker disunity, brought about by growing lack of faith in the NZNO leadership. 

The existing New Zealand union model is less and less able to deliver for workers. Today we have less money, less job security and fewer workplace rights than previous generations. This decline will not be turned around by current union organisation with its fear of confrontation and false hopes in the Labour Party. Teachers, nurses and other workers increasingly abused  by capitalism will need to forge new weapons for the future. 

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