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Collective bargaining shouldn’t rely on old time warfare

Hindsight is 20/20, but the minister’s ability to fix the year-long teacher pay dispute in one day raises questions about the process. Laura Walters asks how this conflict-driven debacle could be avoided next time round.

The year-long teacher pay negotiations, disputes and strikes show us that industrial action does work.

Holding your line and standing your ground is an important strategy to deploy in a high-stakes conflict, and primary school teachers (12 months of negotiations) and secondary school teachers (nine months of bargaining) did so with dignity.

Modern warfare is about winning hearts and minds, and the teachers managed that too, with the public and parents backing their cause throughout.

And on May 29 - in what’s been described as the biggest strike in New Zealand history - they also demonstrated how effective a show of strength can be, when properly timed.

On the other side, Education Minister Chris Hipkins showed the power of a managed retreat when he backed down from his categorical refrain of "no more money".

On Friday, Hipkins announced in the past week the Government had found $271 million more – from underspend on Kāhui Ako ($79.5m) and uncommitted money due to settlement delays ($78.4m) - to put into a collective offer that would end the war.

But the drawn-out dispute calls into question whether the war-like bargaining process, with formalised processes, is too rigid and too adversarial.

After 12 months of standoffs, impasses and stalemates, Hipkins called a day-long forum on Thursday, June 6. 

By the end of the day, the unions, ministry and Government had an agreement in principle. Hipkins went to Cabinet on Monday to get sign-off, and the past week has been getting the finer points in order.

Now the unions will take the offer back to their members, with a recommendation to ratify.

For just an extra $271 million, along with pay parity for primary teachers and a commitment to tackle systemic issues including workload and teacher shortages through a tripartite accord, negotiations are all but over.

“Obviously it would have been much better to get to this point a lot earlier – no question about that. But we’re there now.”

On Friday, Hipkins said the parties ended up in a very different place from where they started. He was referring to the issues that took precedence in the offer, but the same goes for the process.

The last-minute change to the usual system raises the questions about the process. If the minister had broken with the collective bargaining norms earlier, could this have been resolved months ago?

As PPTA head Jack Boyle says, hindsight is 20/20 and it’s hard to know whether earlier intervention would have made a difference two or 10 months ago.

When pushed for his take, Boyle says his crystal ball is too hazy to say.

But it's clear a process built on poor communication - from both sides, at times - and a refusal to budge didn’t get the desired results.

“As soon as you draw a line in the sand, that’s a major barrier,” Boyle said on Friday afternoon.

Hipkins says the ministry’s negotiating approach isn't to blame for the months-long stand-off, but says calling everybody to sit around the table obviously came at the right time, and when there was the willingness from everyone to get a deal and move on.

“And that’s not a position that I was confident we were in before; it was a position we were in on Thursday,” Hipkins said at his press conference.

“Obviously it would have been much better to get to this point a lot earlier – no question about that. But we’re there now.”

“No one is saying this is the perfect deal. I think we all acknowledge there is still a lot of work to do.”

Ministers usually try to keep negotiations at arm’s length, but this stand-off needed a slightly unconventional approach to break the deadlock.

Not every pay deal needs a minister marching in to save the day, but the way this process ended and the failures from both sides along the way show sometimes flexibility and a break from convention is just what's needed.

This wasn’t the first difficult bargaining round for the Government and it won’t be the last. Especially when the administration has promised so much to those who have been under-represented and under-valued for too long.

The best the coalition can do now is learn from its experience and be willing to change its approach, when needed.

As for the deal, no one is saying it’s perfect, including Hipkins.

While teachers have won a victory, with their communities at their backs, not all frowns will be turned upside down by this offer.

Throughout the process, some teachers found themselves equal parts frustrated at the ministry, Government and their own unions.

If both sides want to win back that trust and avoid an implosion come bargaining day 2022, they will have to stay true to the accord and work constructively on long-term issues that will continue to plague schools after teacher pay packets take a boost come July 1.

The deal for secondary school teachers and principals and the deal for primary school teachers and principals will be put to members for a vote. The unions are recommending their members ratify the deal. The details of the offers can be found here.

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