Comment: It’s time NZEI stepped up for teachers

Auckland primary teacher Callum Baird has had enough with NZEI's 'undemocratic processes' and 'questionable methods' . He makes some suggestions on how the union could step up in ways that actually help teachers. 

I am part of a profession that is apparently in crisis. Want to guess which? Nursing? The police?

No, I am a teacher. And we’re currently being screwed.

I know what you’re thinking. Here we go again: the usual teacher sob story. We don’t get paid enough! No one respects us! No one ate the muffins I baked for morning tea! My god, what have I done with my life!

But you’re wrong. This time I’m not claiming to being screwed by the Government, parents, management, society, or even Novopay.

So who’s got us hot under the collar this time?

Surprisingly, for some perhaps, I am talking about my union, the very people who claim to represent me. NZEI is the one who’s handing out the frustration this time and it’s all because it doesn't listen to teachers. Its views are set and its voting processes are undemocratic. It has been this way for some time too and I for one have had enough.

But, don’t teachers want more pay? Isn't NZEI pushing for that? Yes, it is but that’s not what I don’t agree with. It is NZEI’s methods I find questionable. They begin and end with striking: teachers staying home and refusing to come to work. While that might make a point on some level, it is important to remember who striking primarily affects.

It is parents who suffer when teachers strike. Parents will have to take time off work and arrange childcare, affecting their household budgets. This won’t make the public sympathetic to our cause: it will put them in opposition to teachers.

Parents vote in elections. We need parents to be sympathetic to our views so that they vote for parties that value education and want to see the sector funded adequately. For nine years, National used public apathy and distrust of the sector to justify a lack of investment. Striking doesn’t help shift these negative public views: it reinforces them.

What else could be done instead then? Well, a number of things…

First, teachers should still do their core role: be in the class with their students. Children need to go to school and parents need to go to work.

Secondly, teachers could participate in a form of industrial action known as ‘Work to Rule’. This action might involve teachers refusing to do any of the following: writing reports, collecting data on student achievement, attending professional development meetings, fundraising for supplies ... Basically anything that takes them over the 40-hour guideline listed in the Collective Agreement, a contract that teachers, boards and NZEI are party to.

The union that is negotiating on behalf of teachers has no clue what is actually happening in the sector it is trying to change.

Actions like these would mean that teachers would be venting their collective spleens at the ministry and school management. These groups are responsible for the state of education and the overwork of teachers, not parents.

What of school management, what is their role in the crisis? Simply put, their role is to make sure that the school they run meets the objectives set out by the Ministry of Education. One of the strengths of the New Zealand schooling system is that the ministry is not rigid on exactly how schools meet the requirements that it sets out. This can be an advantage as schools can develop teacher appraisal, assessment and reporting procedures that suit their staff and their communities. A drawback of letting schools develop their own procedural frameworks is that some schools, quite simply, don’t get it right. Some are more efficient than others and there is massive variation amongst them.

What does this have to do with the proposed strikes? Well, a lot, actually. It was very frustrating to hear people at the union meeting I attended earlier in the year complaining of pulling 50-plus-hour weeks and blaming the Government. Sorry, that is your school’s issue. The inefficiencies that occur at a school level most always result from incompetent management misinterpreting guidelines. Refusing to do one or more of the duties mentioned above could make certain schools wake up to the fact that they are drowning many of their staff with double handling of data, irrelevant meetings and meaningless professional development.

Now, there are those out there who might mention the changes that have been made to employment law under National. Changes to the laws around industrial action mean that the strike notice that NZEI issues to employers of teachers and school boards needs to outline specifically which actions we are committing to.

And this is where things get very murky indeed. NZEI does not want to commit to something like ‘Work to Rule’ because it finds the prospect of writing a strike notice for anything other than not coming to work a challenge.

Why? Because NZEI doesn’t actually have any idea what its members are being asked to do on a day-to-day basis. You read that right. The union negotiating on behalf of teachers has no clue what is actually happening in the sector it is trying to change.

How have we arrived at this point? NZEI has virtually no real communication with schools. Yes there are meetings, yes there are emails, but there is no one at the union end correctly gauging what a majority of teachers think.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. The first is from a website called LOOMIO that NZEI uses to gauge members' opinions and communicate with work site reps. On any given conversation thread you will find less than 5 percent of NZEI’s membership engaged. These conversations aren’t about the bake sale either, they are important debates about where the campaign to improve teaching in this country should head. How can a discussion legitimately inform NZEI’s decision-making processes if it only encompasses 5 percent of its membership? I asked some union members at my school if they knew what LOOMIO was and they thought it was the dentist down the road from our school. At a friend’s school, nobody knew either. Even if members did know about LOOMIO, people had little idea how to vote correctly once on the site. Some used all of their eight votes for the industrial actions, some thought they had to divide the eight votes amongst their staff; others only used three of their eight votes. How can NZEI get any sort of meaningful data from that mess?

What is NZEI doing about this problem? Well, interestingly, after talking to a lead organiser from NZEI, because of the low numbers on LOOMIO the union asked worksite reps to get staff to take a vote in schools to give them a better idea of how they should proceed. The vote was specifically on what course of industrial action members preferred if the Government offer of 3 percent were rejected. Sounds good in theory, right?

Not quite. Again, because of poor communication, many people were confused about this process - even the worksite reps that work for the union. I know of schools that didn’t even vote, and there were no checks done by our union as to why. We haven’t been told the results of the vote either, so we also have no idea how it was tabulated. Does NZEI know? Maybe…

Furthermore, the options on the information form given to staff as to potential option for industrial actions had pros and cons listed against each form of industrial action. And what was listed next to striking? Three positive bullet pointed pieces of information but only one con. What did we see listed against ‘Work to Rule’? Only two positive outcomes and six different negative points. The purpose of the vote was to gauge member’s views, so why have information on the form that seemingly attempted to steer members away from a particular course of action?

I feel it is also important to discuss how the worksite rep position works in schools. NZEI has at least one volunteer in each school that communicates messages from the union to staff. This position is unpaid. NZEI reps do work for the union but still pay the same fees as everyone else, meaning there is little incentive to actually do the job, and competition for the position is non-existent.

If NZEI really values the voice of their members and genuinely wants to improve education in this country, then it needs to step up. Teachers need more professional representation from a union that has got by doing too little for far too long.

Also, according to the lead organiser I spoke to, because the position of worksite rep is unpaid, NZEI doesn’t feel it can demand too much of reps as they are volunteers. Really NZEI? If worksite reps are your central point of communication and you have admitted you have obvious issues with communication over platforms like LOOMIO, is it not time to look at reimbursing worksite reps for the contribution they make to the union? Even more frustratingly, let’s remember that this union is trying to reduce the workload of teachers and get them more pay, but is also totally fine with having its reps do extra work for them, for free. Go figure. Statistically, it is likely that many worksite reps would also be women. I thought NZEI valued women’s work? Or does that not apply when those same women are working for the union?

If worksite reps were paid (or had free membership, for example) then a number of things could be asked of them. One could be that they actually do the things the union needs them to do, such as hold staff votes and collect their views. Another would be to regularly check which duties in school are consistently pushing staff above the 40-hour guideline in the Collective Agreement. NZEI could then compare schools and more competently represent staff who feel their school’s inefficiencies are causing distress. Where have I got this idea from? The Collective Agreement itself! It clearly states that all parties to the agreement (school boards, teachers and NZEI) have an obligation to show a shared interest in comparability of duties across all schools. So how then is NZEI meeting its end of the bargain when it has no clear communication with worksite reps?

Realistically though, what would change if NZEI improved the way it communicated with members and reimbursed worksite reps?

Well, here’s a list: one, poor managers would be well aware teachers had access to information on how other schools in the country are run, making school management more accountable. Two, teachers would actually get something in return for the thousands of dollars they pay in membership fees. Three, the objectives of the collective agreement that NZEI is party to would be met. Four, teachers could get better working conditions within the current pay-scale, irrespective of any future government offers. Five, communities would benefit because children are at school and teachers are dealing directly with the groups responsible for the over-work of teachers, rather than putting the burden of the sector’s issues back onto parents.

Lastly, and this is the most important result, any course of action the union pursued would be a legitimate decision. Not a predetermined outcome the union has arrived at because it lacks the competence necessary to engage its membership and assess its views.

‘Work to Rule’ may not be the panacea that I might appear to think it is. But some of the actions necessary for it to take place should already be happening in the current Collective Agreement. Furthermore, if the membership were to decide not to pursue this course of action, it should be done through a legitimate voting process. Not some jerry-rigged form that pushes people towards a course of action that suits NZEI.

If NZEI really values the voice of their members and genuinely wants to improve education in this country, then it needs to step up. Teachers need more professional representation from a union that has got by doing too little for far too long.

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