Govt frustrations rise over teacher pay negotiations

The Government is tearing its hair out over teacher pay negotiations as the clock ticks down to April 3, where both secondary and primary teachers are expected to march in the streets.

The Government’s frustrations with teacher negotiations are rising - and now visible - as those involved brace themselves for the biggest strike New Zealand has seen in decades.

Teachers have had a raw deal for too long, they’ve worked long hours for not enough pay; they’ve dealt with students’ complex needs in and out of the classroom without appropriate resourcing; they’ve taught outside their subject areas; they’ve given up their own time and money to make sure their kids don’t go without. Meanwhile, fewer teachers are beginning initial teacher training putting further strain on an already burnt out workforce.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins acknowledged crises across the education system.

When he came into power he hit the ground running, introducing further funding and resources for learning support, scrapping national standards and partnership schools, introducing fees-free tuition for first year tertiary students, and announcing massive education system reforms.

But when collective negotiations began last year, teachers didn’t want to hear about aspirational plans, they wanted a rock solid promise of how the Government – the one that promised so much in opposition – would be improving their pay cheque.

They have been frustrated by a lack of movement in pay scales and resourcing for too long, and now is the time for things to change.

Hipkins was ready for bullish negotiating teams from the primary teachers’ NZEI and the secondary teachers PPTA, but he wasn’t prepared for how things have played out to date.

To say negotiators – especially on the part of NZEI – have been playing hardball is possibly an understatement. And the Government team’s stolid approach is dissolving as a result.

Both sides are frustrated by a lack of progress, and those involved are gearing up for a so-called mega-strike with members of both unions.

How did we get here?

NZEI’s initial claim of a 16 percent pay rise over the term of the collective agreement was worth about $1.75 billion. The ministry countered that with an offer of a 3 percent, worth $550 million.

Sure, that’s how negotiations usually begin.

Those negotiations didn’t result in a deal, and in August about 30,000 teachers marched around the country in a one-day strike. This was the first primary teacher national strike since 1994.

Eventually, they went back to the table for round two, where NZEI upped its claim.

Wait, what? Those who have spoken to Newsroom say this was unexpected. Fair enough, that’s not usually how negotiations play out.

The union’s second claim was worth about $2.5b. The Government moved up to $698m, but has refused to go further – making the difference between the claim and the offer at this point as much as $1.8b.

“It is, in my judgment, simply unrealistic to hold out for further concessions when all the evidence is the Government has gone as far as it will go.”

At the end of last year, negotiations broke down again, the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) was called in to facilitate in November. The authority said the union’s claims had “an air of unreality about them”.

“Put simply, that is an unrealistic impost on any employer, including the Government,” ERA chief James Crichton said at the time.

“It is, in my judgment, simply unrealistic to hold out for further concessions when all the evidence is the Government has gone as far as it will go.”

Following the breakdown, the union used the week of planned rolling regional strikes to meet with members – still no deal.

The minister’s frustration was clear. For someone who is usually put-together, and understanding of teachers’ woes, he was visible annoyed.

In December the ministry invited NZEI back to the table. Last month, they recommenced negotiating, and next week the union will take the ministry’s offer back to members for a vote.

The message from the ministry and Hipkins has remained the same: slice that $700m however you like, but the pie isn’t getting any bigger.

Primary teacher and union negotiator Tute Porter-Samuels says while she's pleased to finally be able to bring a new offer back to members, she's disappointed with how little the ministry was willing to move. (The changes mainly relate to non-contact time.)

"Principal and teacher members will consider these offers very carefully. We'll be asking, are they good enough? Will they address the crisis in teacher recruitment and retention? If we vote to reject them, do we want to join with the PPTA and strike on 3 April?" Porter-Samuels said in a press release.

Government frustration rising

A pay bump and a bit more non-contact time is not going to be a silver bullet.

Fixing the sector will take years, and will span more than one collective agreement. That doesn’t mean the union shouldn’t try to get the best deal possible for its members, and sometimes that means playing hardball.

Both sides are frustrated at the lack of progress in negotiations, and the Government's exasperation is starting to show. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

But right now, it’s clear the Government feels the line between playing hardball, and a lack of good-faith bargaining on the union’s part is being blurred.

And as NZEI inches towards a third strike, the Government is no longer pretending it’s not annoyed at how negotiations are playing out.

In the end, it’s up to members to decide whether to accept or decline the offer – not the negotiating team. But teachers will likely take their lead from the top.

Parallel negotiations

Meanwhile, the PPTA is also in the midst of negotiations, and its claim is no less ambitious than that of their primary counterparts.

Secondary teachers are asking for a 15 percent pay rise. The ministry offered between 2 percent and 3 percent for three years.

The difference is PPTA has been clear about its claim, and its negotiating strategy.

Union head Jack Boyle says he knows secondary teachers won’t get the 15 percent, but that’s how negotiations work.

The union went to its members in November for a mandate to strike for one day in term one. Earlier this month, PPTA set the strike date for April 3.

Boyle says secondary teachers are running out of patience, and there’s been a lack of progress.

It would be surprising if PPTA’s 17,000 members didn’t have at least one strike in them, given the current climate.

And as NZEI digs in, it looks increasingly likely its 50,000 members will join their secondary colleagues next month.

If this happens, all eyes will be on Hipkins to see whether he manages to find more money – something he says the Government doesn’t have – or whether the ministry can manage to pull together a satisfactory deal for frustrated, over-worked, and under-resourced teachers.

If not, what Hipkins surely thought was going to be a good three years of the Government and teachers working together could well be coloured by a bad deal.

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