New Zealand Teachers on Strike

New Zealand teachers have staged their largest strike in history, pointing to a crisis in their profession.

Teachers, parents, and students gather at Civic Square during a teachers strike on May 29, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand. Hagen Hopkins / Getty

On May 29, New Zealand saw its largest teachers’ strike ever. Fifty-thousand teachers (out of a total population of just 4.8 million people) walked off the job and marched in cities and towns across the country.

The teachers are calling on Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government to improve wages and conditions after almost a year of fruitless contract negotiations and to address a long-standing crisis in the profession that has been under sustained political attack; stagnating wages, declining morale, increasing workloads, and an exodus of staff has reached a desperate crisis point.

This is the third strike by teachers since the election of the Labour government in late 2017. It is a sign of the stalemate and disappointment teachers feel about a government that seemed to signal a significant departure from the austerity, anti-public education, and anti-teacher policies of the past.

In the lead-up to the election, the Labour Party campaigned on a platform of “transformational change” to address the major deficits in health, housing, education, and the environment. But in education and elsewhere, this change has not been forthcoming.

Teachers are the latest in a strike wave in New Zealand over the past year. While teachers have engaged in smaller strike actions over the last year, the May 29 strike was the first “mega-strike,” combining teachers at primary and secondary schools and their respective unions, the New Zealand Education Institute (NZEI) and the Post-Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA).

Yet, despite a broadly sympathetic government and strong support from parents and the general public, the dispute may be a long, bitter one, and teachers should not take the currently strong levels of public support for granted. Lessons from the United States teachers’ movement show how teachers’ unions can connect their struggles for pay and conditions with broader campaigns for other community needs.

“A Never-Ending Story”

Historian David Grant writes that the history of unionism among New Zealand teachers is the story of “continuous conflict against recalcitrant governments as teachers have tried to improve pay and conditions.” And for Grant, the story of teachers fighting for basic wages and conditions has been a “never-ending story.”

Within that never-ending story, several victories stand out. In 1989, for example, teachers staged industrial action and a major publicity campaign to successfully fight performance pay, a significant feature of the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s as the government aimed to introduce market principles into the classroom. As PPTA president Jack Boyle explained, “We knew that teaching did not fit the neoliberal tenets of the day; it’s a creative and collaborative endeavour. Time has proven us absolutely right.” In the 1990s and 2000s, industrial action, pickets, staff and student walkouts, and a major media campaigns won the fight against “bulk-funding” (another means of cost-cutting).

In 2002, three years into Helen Clark’s Labour government (1999–2008), teachers were reeling from a decade of underfunding, workload pressures, and ideological attacks on the profession from the National Party (1990–1999). Also like today, teachers in 2002 were facing a shortage of staff, massive workloads, and stagnating wages. Yet the new Labour government refused to budge in negotiations and were openly hostile to the teachers claims.

At one point, Minister of Education Trevor Mallard threatened to put all teachers on individual employment contracts if they voted down a government offer. Against the advice of the union, rank-and-file teachers voted the offer down, shortly after an international study revealed that New Zealand teachers were among the worst paid in the wealthy world.

Out of frustration, some teachers staged wildcat strikes, walking off the job without the sanction of the union and with little notice. Students struck in solidarity and supportive principals refused to dock teachers’ pay for striking. In the end, teachers won significant wage increases against a hostile government and against their own union while, in the same year, successfully resisting school closures.

The Crisis in Education

Despite these victories, the May 29 strike is a sign of a crisis a long time in the making.

Lisa Geraghty, a teacher at a school in Kapiti, just north of New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington, said she had no choice but to strike. “I have been asked if it was a tough decision and that is difficult to answer,” she wrote in the Spinoff. “I genuinely feel like I did not have a choice. My students are so important to me and the teaching profession is a vital one. I made the choice to strike for my students and for the future of my profession …. We are facing a major, very real, crisis in education.”

Primary school principal Steve Dunsmore explained the dire situation: “There is no space, no classrooms, there’s no time to teach, no time to lead. It’s crisis management on a weekly basis.”

Green Party education spokesperson Catherine Delahunty wrote: “It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that over the last nine years the teaching profession was punchdrunk by a sustained political assault on their mission. Hence the exodus, and the struggle to replace the workforce.”

The attack on education under the previous National government (2008–2017) took many of the familiar forms that characterize the global neoliberal assault on public education. The government took advantage of recent earthquakes in Christchurch to “reform” schools in the area; it experimented with unpopular charter schools (a policy not campaigned on during the election but sprung on the electorate only after the election). It reduced democratic control over education by local communities and attempted, unsuccessfully, to increase class sizes in the face of sustained teacher and parent opposition.

The government also introduced standardized testing, which unsurprisingly did not produce results and chipped away at the morale of both students and teachers and heightened workloads, encouraging teaching to the test. The government also resisted efforts to introduce fully state-funded breakfast and lunch programs into all low-income area schools. The “Feed the Kids” campaign emerged in response to growing revelations that one in every four New Zealand children were living in poverty, and some attended school without food.

National also oversaw savage funding cuts to education in its broader program of austerity after 2008 as well as a wage freeze for teachers between 2010 and 2013. As a result, teachers saw their earnings fall, a decline from which they have yet to recover. Indeed, wages for teachers have not kept up over the last two decades.

In 1998, a teachers’ beginning salary was 15 percent above the median New Zealand wage; today, it sits at 1 percent below. Even their current demand of a 16 percent pay rise over two years (which the government has sternly rejected) would fall short of getting teacher pay back to where it was twenty years ago. As Simon Collins has pointed out, most secondary teachers would be paid over $100,000 if their salaries had tracked wage growth since 1980. The current top pay rate is $78,000. Meanwhile, first-year primary school teachers earn less than what is considered a living wage.

This has all been exacerbated by external pressures battering the workforce. In Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city, housing prices have fast outpaced wages, putting further pressure on teachers. By 2017, Auckland was experiencing its worst teacher shortage for two decades, and the rising costs of living and housing made it untenable for many to remain in the city. In many major centers, the average cost of housing now exceeds seven times the top end of the teachers’ basic pay scale. The inability to attract new teachers and to retain staff when they enter the profession is getting desperate as 50 percent of trainee teachers now leave the profession within five years.

A New Labour Government

Since its election in late 2017, the new Labour government has made good progress in certain areas. It has abandoned the failed experiment of charter schools, and removed national standards, which contributed to workload pressures. Yet these are the easy changes, and they don’t cost much. As I wrote earlier this year, the Labour Party agreed before the 2017 election to a set of budget responsibility rules to prove their fiscal credentials, an agreement that has been called by critics a “fiscal straitjacket.”

For this reason, the government’s response to teacher shortages includes only stopgap solutions: shifting teachers from their specialist subjects and employing substitutes. The government has even had to recruit from overseas. Yet even then, the opening salaries are so low that some migrant teachers are having their visas rejected because their salaries offered as teachers sits below the minimum income required for the “skilled migrant” category, an astounding indictment that points to the connected issues of low wages and the teacher shortage.

The “Well-Meaning” Budget

The gap between the government’s own claims of progressive transformation and the reality was starkly illustrated by the fact that the teachers’ strike came just a day before the Labour government released its “well-being budget.” The budget received significant global attention for its commendable attempt to shift the focus from Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to “well-being.”

But while the budget delivered some much needed funding to education and other areas such as mental health, it was largely met with disappointment. One commentator said that it was “a fairly standard Third Way ordering of priorities … the market disciplines that generate poverty and inequality have largely been maintained, while the government does its level best to treat the victims of these processes in more kindly fashion.” Some have called it the “well-meaning” budget.

More insulting to the teachers’ wage and workload demands is the massive increase in military spending and major funding to stop asylum boats, even though no such boats have ever successfully made the journey. As Hamilton West School teacher Gilly Rowling said, “If they can find money for guns and tanks, why can’t they find money for children?”

And in education, it addressed few of the demands made by teachers. As PPTA president Jack Boyle explained, “We recognize that the social deficits in health, education and welfare are the consequences of a long period of neglect before this government took power. By not addressing them, the government fails to be a transformative government. A government with no plan offers no hope.” The budget seeks to fund an extra 3,280 teachers over four years, but even that, according to Boyle, will only cover “departing teachers and … cope with roll growth.”

Teachers’ Activism Globally

A new mood of resistance from teachers isn’t unique to New Zealand, nor are the conditions that have eroded many teachers’ morale. Around the world, overwork and lack of support are driving teachers out of the profession much faster than they can be replaced, while schools face cuts and rising costs.

Meanwhile, in major centers, housing crises are making many areas unaffordable for teachers. Teachers in Los Angeles, West Virginia, and Oklahoma are also taking action to raise wages, improve conditions, and resist attacks on public education. And there’s a lot New Zealand teacher unions can learn from these examples.

Teachers in Los Angeles, for example, have embraced a model of “social justice unionism,” connecting their campaign for higher wages and resistance to attacks on public education to broader campaigns against poverty and for racial justice in the community. As Rebecca Tarlau writes, ‘Teacher unions are not always — and not often — the leaders of broader social justice movements. Now that’s changing due to a new generation of union activists who see their struggle as part of the fight for equitable resources for the communities in which they teach.”

It’s a winning strategy: workers aligning their own demands with those of their community allies.

Going Forward

A win for the New Zealand’s teachers in this fight isn’t yet assured, though there is bound to be some movement from the government. At this stage, the government is insisting that it will not budge. Minister of Education Chris Hipkins told the teachers to “expect disappointment.” While in opposition during the term of the National government, Hipkins also said: “Figures that show teachers’ wages have grown the slowest of all occupations [are] at the heart of the current teacher shortage.”

If, as in 2oo2, the unions negotiate a deal rank-and-file teachers are unwilling to accept, then it will be a long fight. At this stage, however, the unions seem strongly supported by teachers, and the unions are well-aware of teachers’ frustration and expectations; they would find it difficult to sell a bad deal with their members.

Similarly, a deal with the government that only addresses pay would also be a difficult sell to members who are stressing workloads and the erosion of the profession more generally. Teachers are looking for long-term solutions that address the crisis in the profession. As many have noted, the teachers recognize that this is not simply about money, “it is about the survival of an essential institution.”

Teachers have also been energized by the action of other workers over the last year or so. Strike action by nurses, bus drivers, port workers, fast-food workers, retail workers, steel workers, and public servants saw about seventy thousand workers stop work last year, some with major successes. Even their students are taking political actions and strikes: some recently petitioned the government to make teaching New Zealand’s violent colonial past compulsory, while only a week before the “mega-strike,” students took part in their second climate strike, shutting down schools across the country to demand action on climate change.

Yet the teachers’ case stands out. It impacts the largest group of workers thus far and has the potential to transform a sector that desperately needs rebuilding, one that has a significant impact on communities throughout the country. New Zealand has one of the most unequal education systems in the world, a reflection of the grotesque inequality in the country more generally. Teachers, especially those in low-income areas, face this reality every day.

To maintain public support, teachers’ unions need to make this connection. The Los Angeles teachers provide a strong model, connecting their own wage demands to broader goals of social justice and anti-poverty action. In doing the same, teachers could turn the government’s vague electioneering about social justice and transformational change into reality. A win for New Zealand’s teachers could be a win for us all.

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Ross Webb is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Victoria, Wellington, where he researches how organized labor in New Zealand responded to the political and economic change in the decades between 1975 and 1995. He is a committee member of the New Zealand Labour History Project.

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