On my way into Wellington this morning I wondered how many primary teachers and principals would heed their union’s call to take part in the area march and rally at Parliament, and how many would take the opportunity for a well-deserved day of relaxation. I need not have worried about the level of commitment, the turnout was huge. Stuff reports over 4,000, and I can believe it. Before marching to Parliament the union held a mass meeting in the Westpac Stadium. Two alternatives for further action were put to the members. The first was a programme of rolling strikes, area by area; this was received coolly. The second plan was far better, a national two-day strike; this was received rapturously. Support in the union ranks for the campaign is unmistakable.
The march had a joyous carnival atmosphere, similar to the mood at recent actions by the health workers and government staff at the Inland Revenue and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. All the teachers carried something: either a union ‘Kua tae te wā – It’s time’ placard or a home-made sign or banner.
Like other big public sector strikes this winter, today’s action was the first for many a year. The last time primary teachers struck was 24 years ago: with nurses it was 19 years ago and at Inland Revenue it was 22 years ago.
Another feature of this struggle is the support of the general public and, judging by the number of children at the rally, support by parents in particular.
Yet another similarity between the teachers and health workers is the nature of their demands. Pay is not the only concern. The struggle is as much about the intensity of work in an under-resourced education system. One of the union’s central demands is that each school shall have a Special Educational Needs Coordinator. Another demand is that Classroom Relief Time is doubled. The interests of children’s education and teachers coincide, and the public knows it.
The rally at Parliament was too big for the government coalition to ignore. Phalanxes of Labour ministers and Green MPs lined up on the concourse that overlooked the crowd. In an interview with Tracy Watkins this morning, Jacinda Ardern said she was not available to attend. But on seeing the size of the rally Ardern changed her mind. When she joined the Labour phalanx there were friendly cheers, and when came to speak the cheers were greater. Ardern gave a very clever speech that elicited bouts of applause. She identified with the teachers’ cause as far as possible while being consistent with the refrain that the radical change that she and teachers desire will take time to achieve. She called for teachers and government to work together and thanked the teachers profusely for the work they do.
Let’s be clear on a couple of things. The only reason why Jacinda Ardern and Minister of Education Chris Hipkins made emollient speeches today was because the strike, and the threat of further action, has put them under pressure. It is because the teachers are prepared to use their collective power that, during that interview with Tracy Watkin, Ardern practically conceded that the government will make the NZEI an improved offer. The real stance of the government towards primary education is reflected in the offer they made to the union in June that sparked the teachers’ anger: a 3-year term worth between only 2.2 and 2.6 percent a year, no increase in Special Educational Needs Coordinators, and a mere 12 minutes a week extra Classroom Relief Time for preparation and the 101 tasks that teachers have to do.
As we have seen in the health workers’ dispute, there is a vast gulf between the Labour coalition’s rhetoric and the cold, hard reality of its conservative financial approach to funding public services (unless that public service is the Defence Force, in which case billions are available to keep in with our US overlords).
The health workers could have loosened the government purse strings had they been allowed to follow a campaign of militant action. Unfortunately, their leaders did not have the stomach for a fight and wore down the membership with recommendation after recommendation to accept a deal that fell a long way short of transforming working conditions. The NZEI must not make the same mistake. The union must follow the course that members showed they supported today: escalating strike action as far as necessary to win their demands in full and bust the government’s restraint on public spending.