Feverish launch to teacher pay negotiations

Primary teachers and principals could barely contain their anger, and excitement, as their union launched a campaign seeking a $300 million annual pay rise for its members. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

“We bleed them,” NZEI president Lynda Stuart seethes to a crowd of boisterous members.

“We can’t attract people to come into teaching in the numbers we need and if we do get them in we can’t keep them in there - we bleed them.”

It’s emotive language from the union boss, whose organisation represents teachers and principals across the primary and early education sector.

In the wake of a cascade of headlines about teacher shortages, NZEI launched its bargaining campaign on Thursday as it prepares for negotiations with the Government where it will demand a substantial pay rise.

Sitting in the crowd, it’s hard not to pick up on the excitement.

“Because of - and I’m going to be really straight here - a decade of chronic underfunding under National, teacher shortages, inadequate learning support, our children’s education and futures are not secure.”

After almost a decade of negotiations under National, where the industry had to be happy with pay increases roughly in line with inflation, there is a belief that this time it will be different.

A Labour MP, Chris Hipkins, now sits in the Education Minister’s office and the party’s strong ties to the union movement, along with some big pre-election promises, has teachers in good spirit.

Addressing about 100 educators from the dais at Wellington’s St John’s Community Centre, Stuart said there were 40 percent fewer teaching graduates entering the industry compared to six years ago.

Teachers were working long hours bogged down by marking and principals were being forced into the classroom themselves, unable to find staff.

“Today, in this land of plenty, at a time of economic prosperity, some people and some parts of this country are totally missing out. Your children are missing out ...

“Because of - and I’m going to be really straight here - a decade of chronic underfunding under National, teacher shortages, inadequate learning support, our children’s education and futures are not secure.”

The situation is apparently so dire that it has brought together two education unions for the first time.

Jack Boyle, president of the PPTA (representing secondary teachers), was present for NZEI’s launch and received thunderous applause when singled out.

Stuart noted that neither union had ever been present at the launch of the other’s collective bargaining process.

The two unions have a fraught history, but it’s understood battling former Education Minister Hekia Parata’s bulk funding proposal in 2016 forged closer ties between them.

Wrapping up her speech, Stuart announced that a “pay jolt” of an extra 16 percent over two years would be pushed for when negotiations begin next month, costing an estimated $300 million a year for all teachers including non-members.

NZEI would also push for measures to allow teachers more time to teach, with an aim of reducing the class ratio to 1:25 at an estimated annual cost of between $105-117m.

While the education unions will be hoping for smoother negotiations with the new Government, they may struggle to win the large pay hikes they are pushing for.

Money is tight in the Beehive, with large policies such as fees-free study and a big boost to the police eating up cash.

There is also the issue of the Government’s self-imposed Budget responsibility rules, requiring it to keep running surpluses and reduce net debt.

This fiscal hamstring is limiting its ability to borrow and is one reason Ministers from all areas have been asked to go through their spending with a highlighter as the Budget looms.

This leaves a Government likely reluctant to stump up for the teaching unions' wishlist -  but knowing that a failure to satisfy an expectant industry could leave it facing the unpalatable situation of industrial action by the people it pledged to help.

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