Teachers and the Climate Crisis: An Interview With a Unionist

Note that this interview was conducted on the 8th of February 2023. Subsequent events such as Cyclone Gabrielle, which has devastated parts of the North Island, have shed further light on these issues.

Simon Hirini is a secondary school teacher, chair of the Taita College branch of the Post-Primary Teachers Association, and Executive rep for the Hutt Valley region. At the Hutt Valley paid union meeting in December 2022 Simon put forward a motion calling on teachers to take action on climate change and social inequality in their upcoming industrial action:

I ask you to endorse the recommendation:

This region Te Awakairangi/Lower Hutt approve executive preparing an industrial action plan for presentation to members in the first term of 2023 which incorporates and amplifies the three macro issues facing us;

Climate Catastrophe, Social Justice/inequality & Social Cohesion/Resilience.

ISO member Romany Tasker-Poland speaks to Simon about the politics behind this motion and what he hopes to achieve.

Firstly, could you please introduce yourself.

He paruparu tēnei nō Te Tairāwhiti. Ko Haimana/Si rānei tōku ingoa. I tipu mai ahau i tēnei moka o te whenua, i Taitā i Kōraunui me ōku pānga ki ngā iwi o Ngāi Tara me Ngāti Ira.

I am a piece of flotsam and jetsam from the eastern seaboard. I am Haimana/Si. I grew up here in the Wellington region, particularly in Stokes Valley and Taita with tribal affiliations to both Ngāi Tara and Ngāti Ira.

In your motion you call on the PPTA to use their industrial action to highlight three issues: climate catastrophe, social inequality and social cohesion. Why did you choose these three issues to highlight? 

It was easy really, the most pertinent and important issue is the climate catastrophe. Climate change isn’t the right word for it, really. When I refer to it in Māori I talk about Papaatūānuku and Ranginui [the earth and the sky]. The implication is that these are both beings, and they are both affected by what we are doing. It is also to remind us that we need them, but they don’t need us. They will continue in some form without us.

Climate change is the wrong term because the climate changes anyway. In this case the climate isn’t changing just because it wants to change, the climate’s being made to change. I’m using the term “climate catastrophe.” It’s a catastrophe that has implications for everyone in the world, and because it will affect everyone in the world it is the most important issue facing us. Just look at what happened this last week with the storms and flooding Auckland. This type of event will become more common and will become more extreme. And so, the climate crisis is an existential threat. This is the kind of language we need to be using, so that we can start having the conversations we need to have and mobilise in order to respond to an existential threat. 

What about social inequality and social cohesion, why are these issues that you wanted to highlight?

Because we need to acknowledge that our society has inequality — large and growing inequality— within it, and that inequality is built into the system that we have. The system will actually cause more inequality. If we are to overcome both of these problems, inequality and climate catastrophe, we’re going to need social cohesion. We’re going to need to work together as large groups of people, as communities, as a society as a whole and as nations across the world in order to respond appropriately to what’s happening. 

How are teachers specifically seeing these issues playing out in their work?

Well the people in Auckland have been seeing it, they couldn’t go to work! Many schools were closed. Some weren’t closed. Many were in limbo wondering, what do they do? These sorts of decisions are all going to be more common as we have events like this, people will be forced to respond and make critical decisions at critical times. The way that we respond to these situations is going to see whether some people make it through or not. I saw responses from some teachers, mainly on Te Karere on Māori TV. There was one principal who was talking about coming from Māngere. She talked about the community that they have there — impoverished, low decile. She also gave big ups to… I think it was Christopher Luxon and others, because they came through and they supplied all the stuff they needed and so on. And I thought that’s great, but when this becomes more common we cannot rely on the philanthropy of certain individuals to get us through. And that dovetails back into the question of social cohesion and inequality. At the end of the day, how long could Christopher Luxon (for example) sustain that? He did it for one school, could he do it for all the schools in Auckland? Would he? 

If we’re looking at teachers, teachers were put in the position, with those floods in Auckland and in Northland, where they had to coordinate not only their school but their communities. We realise and appreciate now that schools have that role to play within a community, they are a hub of sorts. I think that’s a good thing but that is increasingly going to be the role that schools may have to take on when large disasters eventuate.

Aside from these floods in Auckland and other extreme weather events, are there other ways teachers are seeing these issues playing out in their work?

Oh, definitely. One way it plays out in schools is the issue of food sovereignty. The government is trying to roll out “food in schools” programs. But because of the climate catastrophe we are seeing different seasons. We are seeing plants react differently, and food sources are becoming less reliable. The changes might be good for some species but it might be devastating for other species of plants and animals. Any loss of diversity is a major loss, because diversity indicates that we have some sort of resilience, and the lack of diversity shows that we’re vulnerable.

What about social inequality and social cohesion, how are these things playing out in schools?

We can see it pretty clearly in our school. Look at our school, which is decile 2 (they are changing the decile system but I will refer to deciles in this conversation so that we can get an idea of what we’re talking about), and then look at a decile 10 school. It’s pretty clear that what our kids lack is resources and time. And I would say they lack adult input into their lives, because the adults in their homes are being made to work two or three jobs just to stay afloat. When do they have time to actually raise their kids, or spend time with their kids? They don’t. I think we’re seeing the results of that. Our society, having made everyone go out to work and produce and so on, is seeing a definite effect on the younger generation.

Another thing that we notice is the housing crisis. Because we’ve marketised housing. Politicians tell us this and that, blah blah blah, but the reason we have a housing crisis is because we turned it into a market. We all know what happens in the market: the haves are able to utilise the market in order to do whatever they want (and they want to make profit). The “don’t haves” are on the back foot and struggling from the start, they are unable even to access the market. In schools we’re seeing housing instability. We see kids randomly turn up in the middle of the year, any time of the year, at the end of the year… They are always having to move because they have no housing security. The families are running such a tight line in terms of finances and it’s reflected in the kids’ attendance.

How did we get to the situation we are in now, in terms of the climate crisis and this level of social inequality? (You can be as broad or as specific as you like in answering that)

I would say there’s a whakapapa to it. There’s an ancestry to it. I would say it’s colonisation. But it’s not just colonisation standing alone, it’s ingrained and part of the fabric of our society. Here’s what I would say is the whakapapa, or a whakapapa, of our society and how we got where we are now: I would start with feudalism, then into monarchism, imperialism, colonialism and industrialism, then to capitalism and neoliberal capitalism, corporate capitalism… and I believe now we’re starting to see neo-fascist capitalism. I like to use this whakapapa because hopefully people can start making connections and see that our current situation didn’t just “happen”. It’s been sustained and developed over a long period of time.

And the logic of a system becomes ingrained in the people. People operate under these systems for so long that they cannot see outside of that paradigm. Hence they continue it and cause its transformation through the ages to the point where we are now. I am critical of it because it is the system that we operate under at the moment. Criticism isn’t a bad thing! We need to analyse what we’re doing. We need to understand what we’re doing and the impact that we’re having. I would say that any system, even if we set up a different one it would probably have problems as well because we have humans in it! We need to recognise that we are fallible. We should acknowledge our shortcomings. When people say things like “we are a great country”, yeah we are only as great as the weakest link, we’re all part of the same chain. 

What made you decide to bring this motion to the union meeting, and what role do you think unions in particular can have in addressing these issues?

Those two questions can be answered at the same time. So… an existential threat [laughs]. That actually trumps any card. If we are facing an existential threat we need to push that message. I pushed this at the union meeting because we are already organised citizens within a group. We’re a mass group, we’re already organised, and all of us are facing an existential threat. To me that’s a no-brainer. My question to people who said “no, that’s inappropriate…” is why do they think that is inappropriate? I find that disturbing. Some of the unions in Europe who have already been working together to amplify the climate catastrophe as their top issue, they have a slogan: there are no jobs on a dead planet. If you’re in a union, surely you’re concerned about your job and your working conditions, and these are some of the things that will be affected if there is big climactic destruction. This is so pertinent and so relevant to us as a union. I find it disconcerting that it is not the main thing we are talking about.

How was the motion received by the meeting?

It was contentious. And I love that it was contentious, and that it went down to the wire. I think it was very close, those who were for and those who were against it. It was the abstentions that counted in the end. Our union operates on the Westminster system of democracy (and I do find it ironic as an indigenous person operating on the Westminster system). Because those people abstained from voting they were discounted as votes and we had enough votes to cross the line. It was interesting and it was a big learning experience for me.

It reminds me of an historical example: this is the same system operated back in 1998 or 99 when the PPTA voted on whether or not to adopt NCEA as a model that they would support. It was pretty much the same, those who were for were just ahead of those that were against, it was really close. It was almost a third a third and a third: for, against and abstentions. 

Abstentions notwithstanding, it is promising that so many teachers voted for this motion. What do you think it would take for those teachers who abstained to feel like they can or want to vote one way or the other?

I don’t know, I hate to say it but maybe it would take experiencing one of these extreme events and having their lives turned upside down.

This vote happened before the flooding in Auckland, I wonder what would have happened if it happened after. Do you think more people would have been willing to put themselves behind it?

Well, at the moment our region has endorsed it, the union hasn’t taken it up on a national level. I am going to forward it on to the national level (and I gave them the heads up that I will do this). Perhaps we could receive larger support for it at a national level. If Auckland were to support it I would be happy. 

In your suggestions for industrial action, you mention activities like collecting rubbish and planting trees. What’s the reasoning behind suggesting these sorts of direct actions?

I think it is multifaceted. For one thing, just by taking these sorts of actions you feel better about yourself. So I’m playing up to the social cohesion.You feel better about yourself, you feel like you’re doing something constructive that’s having a real effect. You’re not put in the negative position. I feel a lot of the time it’s “us against them” in industrial action. We can’t see it as us against them in this situation or else we’re all goners. It’s us against the system.

You say that perhaps it will take a negative event for people to feel compelled to act on issues like this… I wonder, could experiencing positive things, like these sorts of activities, also make people feel more empowered to take action?

Very much so. When people are given the agency, the ability and the authority… I would say they take on ownership in some way, or have a sense of “belonging to.”

When we take these actions we can say, yes, we are taking industrial action, and we’re going to do this because we think it matters. People can’t level at us “you’re only thinking about yourselves.” We’re going out there, we’re making a difference in our communities, because we see what’s happening and we see the main issue. Our “nuclear moment.” We are wanting to do something about it and we are willing to do something about it, whether the politicians like it or not. It’s a no-brainer: we’re taking industrial action and while we’re doing it we’re amplifying the main issue. 

When people say to us “you are striking because you want more pay” I hope the response is something like this: Yeah, we are striking and more pay is one of our demands. We are demanding more pay because we have 7% inflation at the moment and they are not going to just hand us a 7% pay rise. Inflation is a tax against the worker. What we need to say is inflation is caused by capitalists who decide to put their prices up. 

On that note, and to perhaps push back a little against your earlier comment about it not being “us vs. them”, what you’re saying here seems to point to the fact that there is an unavoidable level of conflict in this

Our hands are tied! In the capitalist system we have no other recourse but to hit the capitalists where it matters to them, not to us! It doesn’t matter to us, we could survive if we didn’t live in a capitalist system, you know. If the capitalists are complaining that they have to pay people more wages, well, you made the system! In this type of system our hands our tied. 

What are you hoping will come out of this specific action

Well I hope that the union membership take the climate catastrophe seriously and I hope that our community (who we care about!) see us pointing to that as the main issue. I hope it helps people to see that this is a serious issue and it needs to be taken a lot more seriously than the carbon trading scheme. That’s not sufficient.

What do you think needs to happen for these issues to be truly addressed

From my point of view, once we have acknowledged that it’s an existential threat then everything is on the table. There is nothing that we can not discuss. We can discuss everything. The Greens [in their recent discussion document] have suggested that the return of private property to Māori should be on the table for Treaty claims. Simon Bridges of National and David Seymour of Act went “nah nah nah, we can’t talk about that. That’s not on the table.” When it’s an existential threat and a crisis, it’s on the table. Māori need to have discussions about this as well, among ourselves. We need to ask how many of the Treaty claims have shown that the Crown acted in good faith? The Crown has breached the Treaty over and over again. Māori need to say, our natural way of operation is that land is a communal thing. So, in a situation like this where we are facing a catastrophe, why wouldn’t we want to discuss private land ownership? 

We need to question the fundamental ideas that underpin the capitalist system that we operate in, and if we put private land ownership up there on the table for negotiation I can see that having a big impact. People say “oh yeah, we’ll just plant a few trees.” No, we need massive change. Landscape architecture on a mass scale, which a single private owner just can’t do. They cannot do it. We will need to employ the help of everyone in our country to do it.

Think about it, if we are facing such a massive threat then why have we not mobilised our schools? Think about the second world war and the first world war; as a country we were mobilised in a certain way. And now, facing this threat, we’re sitting here like dead ducks waiting for something to happen. We have a lot of parties lining up to be elected this year and no party is saying this! It shows me that the politicians who put themselves up as leaders have no real leadership. They’re not leaders, they are there to dictate.

There are many things that can be done! Whatever field you look at. Look at our democracy for example. We voted for change in 1996 for “MMP,” why is mixed-member proportional not implemented at a caucus-level where the decisions are made? But that’s just a little step. What about democracy in the workplace? I would like to see workplace democracy, one person one vote. Democracy practised every day in the place that you spend most of your adult life. Straightforward: democracy, give us more democracy. 

And we need to acknowledge that the system is broken. The system is incapable of saving us or itself. The wheels are coming off. Look at any area: health, justice, education, and you’ll see the same thing repeated within it. To me that says there’s something wrong with the whole system. If we accept that the system is broken then we can change it, we can start to have the discussion about what kind of society we would like to have. Some parties talk about a minimum working wage. What about a maximum working wage? Or look at it another way: if the role of a government is to make sure that we get certain services, what about minimum basic services you can expect as a citizen? As a citizen you have a right to a certain level of services, health education etc… But unless we acknowledge that the system is broken we can’t have these discussions. And there are conversations Māori need to have about co-governance. We need to push the fact that there has never been co-governance. The Treaty has never been acknowledged. We have years of Waitangi Tribunal material showing that it hasn’t been. So… we have this founding document that we’re not living up to, and we’ve got the system that’s broken… maybe we should work towards what that document was saying and trying to do in order to get us out of the predicament we’re in. 

The Post-Primary Teachers’ Association is taking industrial action throughout this term, including a national strike on 16th March.