New Zealand’s first teacher megastrike

Industrial action is ramping up as teachers vote for an unprecedented megastrike.

On Sunday, both primary and secondary teacher unions announced plans for a joint, national strike on May 29.

The decision for about 50,000 members across the two unions to walk out of work on the eve of the Government’s first Wellbeing Budget comes after almost a year of collective bargaining and industrial action.

The Government’s pay offers add up to $1.2 billion, with a package for primary school teachers and principals worth almost $700 million, and secondary educators being offered just shy of $500m.

These offers have been repeatedly rejected, with NZEI members having gone on strike twice and through failed Employment Relations Authority facilitation. PPTA members were lined up for their first strike earlier this year, but it was cancelled in the wake of the Christchurch attack. The possibility of a megastrike was first floated late last year.

Now May 29 will mark the biggest industrial action in the country’s history.

“[It is] the first time two education unions have stood together in the interests of children, in the interests of our workforce, and the future that we all want. Where it is possible for New Zealand to truly be the best place to be a child,” PPTA president Jack Boyle said.

Primary and secondary educators were united in their aspirations, he said, adding that teachers did not take strike action lightly.

“Children’s learning is suffering and people lives are being disrupted. This standoff needs to be resolved. Labour needs to prioritise teachers to resolve the dispute.”

Education Minister Chris Hipkins has gone to pains to point out this pay offer was bigger than the three previous offers combined, reached under the last National Government.

As well as the $1.2b in pay offers, the Government has rolled out about $500m in funding for learning support, and a $95m pre-Budget announcement to address teacher workforce issues, along with other initiatives to address the teacher supply issue.

“That’s a lot of money," Hipkins said. “I don’t think a strike is justified."

He stressed there would be no further money for pay increases in this Budget, however, there would be more money for education in general.

The Government urged both NZEI and PPTA to begin Employment Relations Authority facilitation, in order to avoid the May 29 strike.

However, it is hard to see a case where teachers would come to an agreement through facilitation, considering there is no more money on the table.

Big promises

Throughout negotiations, unions have said the colour of Government didn't impact whether they decided to take industrial action, but it seemed they had hopes for a bigger offer under this Labour-led Government.

“I think teachers have high expectations of this Government, and that’s fine. I’m happy to live up to those expectations, as long as they’re reasonable,” Hipkins said.

When asked to describe the current relationship between the education unions and Government, he referred to it as “strained”. “But that’s to be expected.”

National Party education spokesperson Nikki Kaye said it was crucial the Government provide a “circuit breaker” to resolve the dispute.

“Labour created huge expectations with the sector by over-promising."

“Giving teachers time to teach and to lead, and ensuring teaching is a viable long-term career choice, is essential if children are to get the teaching and learning they deserve."

Teachers did not believe Hipkins when he said there wasn’t any more money, given the Government’s spending over the past year, she said.

“Children’s learning is suffering and people lives are being disrupted. This standoff needs to be resolved.

“Labour need to prioritise teachers to resolve the dispute.”

'Business as usual will not do'

NZEI Te Riu Roa president Lynda Stuart said teachers were raising their voices together to call on the Government to prioritise addressing the education crisis.

“Giving teachers time to teach and to lead, and ensuring teaching is a viable long-term career choice, is essential if children are to get the teaching and learning they deserve,” she said.

Stuart said NZEI members had been clear: “'Business as usual' will not do this”.

The unions were calling on the public and parents to join about 50,000 members in their strike.

PPTA had also decided to undertake five weeks of industrial action, commencing with the full-day strike on May 29.

While Hipkins said his preference was for facilitation and negotiating an agreement that stopped the megastrike, that looks incredibly unlikely.

At this stage, there is no end in sight, with two education unions dug in, and a Government firm on the decision to not offer any further money as part of collective agreement packages.

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