Education pay war heating up

Education unions will be approaching this year's pay talks with more confidence than they’ve had in a decade. Shane Cowlishaw looks at the coming pressure on the Government to boost wages in the sector.

Leading up to the election, education problems were one of the biggest sticks the then-opposition parties used to attack the Government.

Low pay and excessive workloads were driving people out of the profession and leading to crisis-level shortages, it was claimed.

Now, those parties that were so critical are in charge and tasked with delivering on their promises.

The education unions are some of the strongest in the country and have, like the wider union movement, long-held ties to the Labour Party.

They will be hoping those links will give them an easier run during this year’s collective bargaining and will be taking every opportunity to keep the issues important to their members front and centre.

Last year the PPTA wasted no time in testing the new Government’s mettle, calling for an immediate five percent pay rise just weeks after they took power.

It was swiftly rejected by new Education Minister Chris Hipkins, who pointed to this year’s bargaining as the appropriate time to negotiate, but the Government will not find it so easy to sidestep the demands after heavily criticising low pay rates while in opposition.

Unions late last year issued a warning of likely industrial action if pay demands weren't met, with the PPTA saying a rise of 14.5 percent in the top teacher scale was needed to restore parity to 2002 levels.

This year there has already been a flurry of media appearances and press releases from the education unions as they begin to exert pressure.

PPTA president Jack Boyle, whose organisation represents secondary teachers, has been on television stressing the crisis level of the staff shortage while his primary teacher counterpart, Lynda Stuart of the NZEI, was also in the news with a survey suggesting nearly 20 percent of new graduates left the teaching profession within five years for better opportunities.

Dr Stephen Blumenfeld, of Victoria University’s Centre for Labour, Employment and Work, said the current Finance Minister Grant Robertson had previously worked in the education portfolio so would be acutely aware of the issues.

Combined with the fact that teacher shortages were generating plenty of media attention, it boded well for the unions.

“The current government during the election campaign talked a lot about collective bargaining and education, particularly about teachers’ pay, so I think we can expect, given what they said at that time, the teachers' unions will fare better in the current round than in the last nine years.”

Pay rises the only option to stop an exodus

Negotiations are likely to take up most of this year, with talks on the NZEI agreement beginning first, followed by the PPTA.

Both groups argue the shortages plaguing the system are due to the profession no longer being attractive compared to other options.

“It’s a bit like a rubber band, you keep stretching it and stretching it and stretching it, and it eventually breaks.”

Increasing pay rates for teachers is being put forward as the quickest way to level the playing field with those professions.

Boyle said teachers were highly-trained individuals who wanted to make a difference, but many were making a call that the financial reward and time commitment just didn’t stack up.

The most recent intake of new teachers was only half of those who entered the profession in 2011, which was worrying.

Late last year the Government announced a $9.5 million stopgap to try to ease the shortages, and has committed significant funds to the education portfolio long-term.

Boyle did not want to get into specific pay increases the PPTA would target, but said more important was the agreement of a mechanism that could calculate adequate increases going forward to mitigate rare, one-off boosts that made up for years of underfunding.

Stuart agreed and said that if pay rates were not increased to attract and retain teachers then the entire education system would go backwards.

“If we can’t get people into teaching, what happens is we end up with bigger classrooms, people in teaching are more and more stretched and we can’t allow that to happen, we’re at a stage when we can’t just rely on the goodwill of teachers.

“It’s a bit like a rubber band, you keep stretching it and stretching it and stretching it, and it eventually breaks.”

While the education unions will be hoping for a big payday, they may not get the huge increases they are looking for.

Money is tight with the new Government and it will likely be reluctant to cave completely to ambitious demands.

Boyle and Stuart both recognise this and admit negotiations will be difficult.

“The reality is any procurement for public funds or anything else is not going to an easy road,” Boyle said.

“I think trying to get out of that hole is not going to be particularly easy for any government.”

Money not the only issue

While there will be a big push for increased pay, it won’t be the only item on the bargaining agenda.

The creep of admin and assessment work for teachers has also been a priority for the unions.

For secondary teachers, Boyle said the excessive marking needed for NCEA meant a heavier workload and less time for other duties.

It was estimated most teachers were working 52-hour weeks — even more for those in senior leadership roles.

This meant things like attending after-school drama classes or coaching a sports team were impossible, he said.

For primary teachers admin duties were also increasingly taking up time that could be spent on more productive tasks, Stuart said.

There were also more responsibilities in dealing with students with difficult behaviour, and the union would be pushing hard for more resources in this area.