NZ teachers take historic strike action

Teachers on strike in Auckland on May 29.

Teachers around Aotearoa New Zealand held a historic one-day strike on May 29.

For the first time, both primary and secondary teachers joined together in a “mega-strike” to demand pay rises, parity between primary and secondary teachers, staffing increases and more time for preparation and out-of-classroom activities. About 50,000 teachers took part in the strike, with most public schools closing for the day. Large, loud and colourful marches took place in all main centres and many regional towns. Teachers also gathered at major intersections with placards and banners, encouraging motorists to toot in support of the campaign.

The “Kua Tae Te Wā” (“It’s time”) campaign was initiated in 2017 by the NZ Educational Institute (NZEI Te Riu Roa), the union covering primary school teachers and support staff. It focuses on four areas: significant pay rises for teachers and principals and parity between primary and secondary teachers; increased staffing and resourcing to reduce workloads; fixing issues with relativities; and career development.

NZEI Te Riu Roa has previously taken strike action including a full-day strike in August last year (the first in 24 years) and a week of rolling one-day strikes in November. In early May, following a rejection of the government’s latest offer, NZEI members overwhelmingly voted to take joint strike action with the Post Primary Teachers Association (PPTA).

The campaign is a response to an ongoing crisis in education that has led to a shortage of teachers, due to higher student numbers and fewer trainee teachers. According to the NZEI, many teachers are leaving the profession. Out of 120,000 registered teachers, only about 100,000 are currently practising.

According to the OECD 2018 report Education at a Glance, NZ teachers have some of the highest workloads, largest classes and lowest pay of any teachers in the developed world. They are paid 10% less than other New Zealand workers with similar skills and experience. In nine years of the previous National government, teachers received raises of only 1-2%, which failed to keep up with the cost of living, particularly in the big cities.

In Auckland, inner-city schools have difficulties with staffing due to teachers not being able to afford to rent or buy housing in the area.

The other issue for teachers is workloads. There are more government requirements to constantly assess and measure children, more children with high and complex needs who are not receiving the extra support they need, and more demand for adult-to-adult collaboration in modern learning environments and Communities of Learning.  Teachers are also dealing with the effects of inequality, providing support to children who lack basic food and clothing, are transient or living in poor housing. This is causing many teachers to burn out and leave, or take sick leave for stress-related illness.

The campaign has had considerable support from parents, local communities and students, many of whom joined in the pickets and marches on May 29. Even mainstream media coverage has been reasonably supportive, with many reports focusing on stories of individual teachers who described their struggle to continue motivating and engaging their pupils in the face of impossible workloads.

However, NZ’s Labour-Greens-NZ First coalition government has been slow to respond. While Green Party MPs have supported the teachers, the majority Labour Party has dragged its feet. The government’s latest offer in March proposed a base salary rise of 3% a year over three years. This was much less than the unions’ claim for a 16% pay rise over 2 years, and an extra half day of classroom release time (CRT) for the period of the new collective agreement. The unions are calling for CRT to be raised from 10 to 20 hours, and renamed Professional Practice Time.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins, who previously acknowledged the importance of pay for teachers, has repeatedly claimed that the teachers’ demands will cost the government almost $NZ4 billion. The NZEI responded via the campaign website saying they have not yet seen how the settlement costings have been calculated, and believe they are overestimated.

Following the strike, Hipkins announced he would meet with the NZEI and PPTA on June 6 to resolve the dispute. Meanwhile, post-primary teachers will continue rolling strikes between June 17–21, including refusing to teach one Tuesday class each week for four weeks.

The government’s refusal to improve teachers’ wages and conditions is widely seen as a contradiction to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s rhetoric of bringing more “kindness” into politics.

The government released its 2019 “Wellbeing Budget” on May 30. However, no additional funding was allocated for more teachers or salary rises. NZEI president Lynda Stuart criticised the budget, saying it “largely disappoints across the board for education”.

“A society’s wellbeing depends on a well-funded education system,” she said.

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