Described by minister of education Hekia Parata as the “biggest update to education in New Zealand in nearly 30 years”, the recently introduced Education Amendment Bill aims to gradually undermine the country’s state education system.
Government plans include the introduction of full-time or part-time online tuition to replace classroom interaction for students from age five provided by schools or commercial entities. Parata is also aiming to offer much-needed assistance to disabled pre-school students by diverting resources from older students. Under the guise of giving schools greater autonomy over spending, a “Global Budgets” proposal will in fact increase competition and present schools with impossible financial choices, creating conditions for fewer teachers with increased class sizes.
The dire consequences of these proposed changes led to unprecedented co-operation between New Zealand’s two main education unions – the Post Primary Teachers Association (PPTA) and the NZ Educational Institute (NZEI). In mid-September, they held 54 joint membership meetings in different regions during which the leadership’s sole focus was on opposing Global Budgets, leaving themselves free to later capitulate over other elements of the government’s multi-pronged attack.
The Wellington city meeting on 6 September was scheduled to only last an hour, with the first 40 minutes spent on official speeches about the need to send a “strong message” to the government. The union leaders presented resolutions rejecting the Global Budgets model and in favour of organising a community campaign for better funding. During the brief time allocated for comments and questions from the floor, IBT supporter Adaire Hannah surprised the top table by not only denouncing the attacks but also moving a resolution for a one-day strike to initiate a serious fight to derail them.
When the PPTA president responded that that such an action would be illegal and punishable by significant fines, Hannah replied: “Yes, there are possible consequences for striking outside of our contract negotiation time but the threat is a red herring. The government has started to renegotiate our contract and, with 60,000 teachers, and parents, friends and students on the streets, how likely is it for the government to fine us? We would refuse to pay and then what? Jail? All 60,000!”
The two unions voted separately, beginning with the NZEI members. After an unsuccessful attempt to declare Hannah’s resolution lost on a voice vote, a hand count revealed that 397 supported the idea of a national one-day strike while only 299 were opposed. When the union tops then adjourned the meeting on the grounds that the allotted time had run out, without concluding the PPTA vote, there were loud protests from the floor.
The union leaders acknowledged learning a lesson from the “untidy” Wellington meeting and ensured that subsequent joint meetings proceedings were more tightly controlled to avoid rank-and-file challenges to the leadership’s strategy. This reveals their pretence that the membership controls the leadership through this type of meeting and shows instead that they are instruments for the leadership to control the membership. The Wellington teachers’ strike vote was not communicated to other branches and instead the leadership are pleading with the government via postcards, petitions and a “better funding roadshow” of three brightly coloured buses touring the country to “spread the message”. These efforts amount to little more than a capitulation, and would be laughable if there was not so much at stake.
Without an organised national opposition to the capitulations of the present leadership of the teachers’ unions, it is unlikely that the rank and file willingness to fight can be turned into a robust response to the government’s attacks. But clearly the basis exists for the development of a potential alternative leadership within the unions, committed to clear class-struggle politics, which can lay the groundwork for a militant challenge to the conservative misleadership of the trade-union bureaucracy.
Adaire Hannah’s speech at the Wellington meeting, putting these attacks in the context of the fight for free quality education for all, is reproduced below.
That we are here together for the first time in decades is an acknowledgment of the gravity of the situation we are facing – the strangulation of state education.
The National Government has carefully chosen its Minister of Education to launch their attack – a Margaret Thatcher type. Unlike us, she has no commitment to quality state education for all New Zealand students regardless of their abilities, physical or intellectual. She is out to provide quality private education for the rich as evidenced by increased state funding for private schools. And the poor? Well they can attend ill-conceived, mismanaged charter schools or the run down state schools.
Privatisation of state services has been going on for quite some time – NZ Rail, NZ Electricity, NZ Post, Housing NZ to name a few. This must not be our road.
Global Funding, ORS funding [for students with disabilities] and COOLs [communities of online tuition] – any one of these proposals completely undermines our contract and all three do it triply. The government has reopened contract negotiations. Because they have fundamentally undermined the current contract we have to defend our conditions or fight for better conditions in a new contract. What is at the heart of our contract? Quality state education, staffed by trained teachers and dedicated support staff who provide the services that meet the needs of all our children and youth – today and tomorrow.
The timing of this package is deliberate. It is mid-term for the government. And it is almost mid-term for our contract so the government is relying on the Employment Relations Act of 2000 to prevent us using one of our key defences. The withdrawal of our labour.
Fighting means strike. We have the right to fight to defend our conditions. The government has no right to turn its back on their contract and deny us the right to strike.
We cannot delay as once ensconced in law it will be much harder to change.
Our second key defence is our numbers.
There are around 60,000 NZEI and PPTA members and we have thousands of parents, grandparents and friends who will support us. In the face of such huge numbers of people opposed to the privatisation of education what can this government do?
So first, we have to show our community that we are serious. Vote to strike.
We teach our students about men and women who fought for principled causes such as: the 1986 Homosexual Law Reform Bill; the 1981 Springbok Tour; the vote for women. These movements, some of which many of us were a part of, employed legal and illegal tactics. And they won.
Earlier this year a few thousand Auckland Allied Health Workers went on strike against their District Health Boards after their new collective negotiations stalled. They won! And this is not an isolated example.
Let us too demonstrate our commitment to quality state education for all and our courage to defend its continuing existence. Mobilise! Strike!