Public onside as teachers vote on mega-strike

Teachers are moving towards an unprecedented mega-strike, with the backing of the public. But is there any more money for pay rises? Laura Walters talks to the education minister about the ongoing battle and what he sees as the endgame.

As teachers and principals head back into meetings to vote on whether to hold their first mega-strike, new research shows public support for teachers is unwavering.

This week, via paid union meetings and an online ballot, NZEI and PPTA members will vote on whether to hold a joint national strike on May 29 – the day before the Government delivers its first Wellbeing Budget.

It’s highly likely the strike of almost 70,000 teachers and principals will go ahead, based on past votes to reject Government pay offers and current public sentiment.

If it does, it will be the third round of industrial action for primary teachers and principals, after more than a year of collective negotiations, and two rejected pay offers. It will mark the first strike for PPTA’s 20,000 secondary teachers and principals, who have rejected three pay offers, and called off a planned strike in the wake of the Christchurch attack.

While there is a group of primary teachers and principals who would prefer to accept the offer and move on, a mega-strike has been on the cards for a while, and might just be the thing needed to squeeze a bit more money out of the Government, which has consistently said there is no more money for payrises.

"New Zealanders from all walks of life want to see an investment in education. They want to know children are getting the best education they can get and they want teachers to know they're valued."

The vote on whether to go ahead with one of the biggest industrial actions in New Zealand history, comes as new research commissioned by NZEI and PPTA shows the public continues to back teachers, with 89 percent of people saying more money should be spent on education, compared to other issues.

The opinion poll has been conducted regularly since March 2018, and shows consistently strong support for reduced class sizes, more support for children with additional needs, more time for teachers to teach, and a pay rise for teachers (83 percent).

NZEI vice president Liam Rutherford said teachers knew they were supported by parents, but the results sent a clear message to the Government.

"New Zealanders from all walks of life want to see an investment in education. They want to know children are getting the best education they can get and they want teachers to know they're valued."

While PPTA vice president Melanie Webber said the Prime Minister had “fantastic aspirations for Kiwi kids, but she doesn't seem willing to make changes in education that would benefit every child now and into the future”.

Students’ futures relied on having an equitable and well-resourced education system with teachers who had the time, experience and energy to bring out the best for every student, she said.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said there was no doubt the public was sympathetic to teachers’ concerns, but so was the Government.

“But we’re also sympathetic to the concerns of nurses, doctors and all of those others that are raising concerns – as are the public.

“The general public also take the view that there are many, many worthy hands out at the moment, asking for more money. And I think they recognise that the Government does have a balancing act here, and we can’t do everything for everybody, all at once."

The escalation

The announcement NZEI and PPTA members would be voting on whether to go ahead with a joint strike (instead of NZEI members considering work to rule) came last week; the morning after Hipkins made the Government’s first significant pre-Budget announcement, focused on the teaching workforce.

The minister pledged $95 million over four years to get more Kiwis into teaching, support training providers, expand scholarships and grants, and develop a workforce strategy.

The Government’s education pay offer so far totals about $1.2 billion. There has also been further funding for special needs and learning support co-ordinators, abolishing national standards, abolishing charter schools, and a review of Tomorrow’s Schools and NCEA.

Hipkins said the latest investment in teacher training was not the end, and there would be more in the Budget.

“Although we’ve been very clear where we sit around teacher pay. I will go so far as to say there’s not a big chunk more money for bigger pay rises – that’s definitely not in the Budget.”

Primary and secondary teachers and principals will likely vote to strike on May 29 - the day before the first Wellbeing Budget. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The unions say this extra $95m doesn’t cut the mustard; without decent pay, teaching will not become a desired and valued profession, and retention will continue to be an issue.

The rates of retention are disputed, with PPTA citing 50 percent of new secondary teachers leave within five years; ministry figures show after five years in the job, retention rates for all teachers is 76 percent.

Hipkins said the Government was clear from the outset: it was not going to solve every problem overnight.

Issues like smaller class sizes and more release time required the sector to recruit and train more teachers, he said, pointing to Thursday’s announcement.

However, Friday’s announcement that almost 70,000 teachers were considering a mega-strike came as no surprise to the minister, who said it had been on the cards for a while now.

The endgame

Currently, Government offers to NZEI and PPTA members are valued at $698m and $496m, respectively, over four years.

However, they have been overwhelming rejected by members, and in the case of PPTA, members said the latest offer “doesn’t even touch the sides”.

In order to fix workload pressures, the unions want more money and bigger pay rises.

But Hipkins said the strategy was unclear. He received a lot of feedback from teachers, but it was contradictory. While some said it wasn’t about the money, others were calling for bigger pay rises.

"I think what’s very clear is that having spent the last decade arguing for a collaborative working relationship with Government, the teacher unions don’t know how to do that."

“It’s not clear there is a unified view among teachers of what the endgame is....

“The union does not seem to be able to get their members to the point where they have a clear sense of exactly what their priorities are,” he said.

"I think what’s very clear is that having spent the last decade arguing for a collaborative working relationship with Government, the teacher unions don’t know how to do that."

They seemed “hardwired” to continue with an adversarial approach, Hipkins said.

It’s expected teachers and principals will vote in favour of a mega-strike, despite some teachers being opposed to further industrial action, and preferring to accept the offer and look to build on it during the next round of negotiations in another three years.

Primary teacher and principal members of NZEI Te Riu Roa will vote at a series of paid union meetings this week, and secondary school members of PPTA will vote in an online ballot throughout the same period. The outcome of both unions' ballots will be announced early in the week of May 13.

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