IBT supporter leads walk-out against adult education cuts in Wellington

On the afternoon of Tuesday, 4 August, Wellington High School teachers and other staff members walked off the job to protest against the National government’s 80 percent funding cut to Adult Community Education (ACE) night classes. They were joined by students, parents, representatives of other Wellington regional ACE schools, trade union and political activists. In all, some 400 people marched to Parliament despite heavy rain, and the event was extensively covered in the national and local media.

This action, which raised the ACE cuts to the level of national importance, began when Adaire Hannah, an IBT supporter in the PPTA branch at the school, put forward a proposal to protest against the cuts.

Over 220,000 New Zealanders annually attend these night class programmes, where adult students are taught welding, computing, languages, budgeting and so on. In its May budget, the government precipitously announced that annual ACE funding would be slashed from $16 million to $3 million by year end.  The education minister, Anne Tolley, lamely claimed that the repudiation of earlier pledges to maintain night school funding was necessitated by the recession, yet somehow $35 million was allocated in the same budget to support private schools! The ACE tutors, coordinators and directors are represented by the Post Primary Teachers Association (PPTA) and significant numbers of them are threatened with redundancy by the end of 2009. 

The PPTA leadership has failed to initiate any serious action in response to this attack. An article in the July PPTA News passively reported on the government’s plans. When Hannah initiated a union branch meeting of the Wellington High day school teachers on 3 July, a good third of teachers attended and four resolutions moved by Hannah were unanimously passed. One called on the National Executive of the PPTA to organise a National Day of Action against the ACE funding cuts, while a second called for the branch to walk out of school at 2.00 pm early in the new school term and march to Parliament. A third resolution called on other schools to join the march.

A subsequent branch meeting reaffirmed the proposal for an “illegal” walk-out, and planning for the action commenced in collaboration with the school’s ACE staff. Press releases were sent out, community groups were notified and placard and banner-making sessions were organised.

In the PPTA any branch resolutions for national action must first be approved by the region. At the 28 July regional meeting a supporter of the National Executive moved an unfriendly amendment to replace the call for a National Day of Action against the funding cuts with a call for vague “ongoing political action”. The amendment passed, effectively gutting the Wellington High motion.

The following day Hannah was summoned to the national office of the PPTA, where she was met by President Kate Gainsford and five other union officials. Gainsford began by insisting that, despite appearances, the PPTA had actually done a lot of work in responding to the proposed funding cuts to night classes, in particular lobbying industry organisations about night classes as cheap job training. Gainsford also disowned the amendment at the regional meeting, claiming that in fact the union was in favour of a National Day of Action and planned to ask school principals to release teachers for it. She said that the National Executive was trying to involve the NZ Education Institute, the primary school teachers’ union, and feared that militant action might scare them away.  She also said that Education Minister Anne Tolley might use the proposed Wellington High School action as a way to change the focus from the funding cuts to “illegal” behaviour by teachers.

Hannah dismissed all of this. Seeing that she was making no headway, Gainsford demanded to know if the action was a protest or a strike/walk-out/down tools. If it was a protest and the union was not mentioned, then it could go ahead, provided all media were dealt with through the national office. Hannah responded that the action in fact amounted to a protest strike and that the branch had designated its media spokespersons and those who would speak at Parliament and that the branch would not be inclined to accept any changes.

Gainsford replied that the Employment Relations Act stipulated that in the event of an illegal action each individual member involved could be fined $5,000 and that the union could face fines up to $200,000 (in fact the figure is $10,000). In 1991 when the National Party made it illegal for workers to strike for political reasons, or in support of other workers, the leadership of the PPTA and other unions rejected all proposals for industrial action to defeat it.

In response to the PPTA leaders’ attempt to hide behind this anti-worker legislation, Hannah stated that if the teachers from Wellington High were fined for their protest then the branch would close the school and call on the National Executive to organise a national strike in their support. Gainsford responded that additional actions would result in additional fines. It was clear the PPTA tops had no intention of doing anything to defend its members struggling against education cutbacks.

Gainsford demanded that Hannah call a branch meeting so she, as national president, could inform the membership of the risks they were running. Hannah replied that she would inform the membership of the president’s request and the branch would decide whether or not to invite her to speak. At that point Gainsford angrily instructed an official to minute 10 points, the first of which was “that the President has advised the branch that a walk out is illegal.” Her intent was to seek to avoid liability if charges resulted from the Wellington High School action. Several of the union officials in attendance were surprised that regular day-time teachers were so militantly supporting night school teachers, many of whom are not even unionised. One of Gainsford’s allies said that while branch autonomy was encouraged, illegal actions could put the rest of the union at risk. Gainsford picked up on this and, striking a more conciliatory posture, said that while the branch’s intentions were honourable, the illegal action must not take place.

The next morning the Wellington High School Board of Trustees -- the employer -- reluctantly agreed to allow staff to begin their protest at 2.00 pm as scheduled. This lifted any danger of legal action. Hannah made a full report of her meeting with the PPTA leaders to a meeting of the union branch attended by half the membership. In response to the objections of the PPTA leadership, the union’s name was removed from all subsequent media releases.

At 8.00 am on the day of the action teachers rallied outside the school, holding placards encouraging passing motorists to toot their horns to show support. The camaraderie evident at this event set the tone for the day’s activities. At 2.00 pm the teachers and many non-teaching staff walked out, accompanied by a good many students and other supporters, and began to march to Parliament. Halfway along the route, Gainsford joined the demonstrators along with several PPTA staffers.

At Parliament Hannah, who MCed the event, was approached by a union staffer about the possibility of Gainsford being allowed to speak. Hannah told her that after the scheduled speakers there would be an open microphone where the PPTA President would be as welcome as anyone else to speak. Gainsford did speak, but her failure to offer any prospect of initiating a serious fight resulted in a less than warm reception.

The following are Hannah’s remarks at the rally:


This protest must be the beginning of a campaign to stop all cuts. It is not enough to send postcards and sign petitions— we must be on the streets and be vocal. We need to use our organisations — unions, community groups, student associations — to stand up to the Government’s attacks on workers, youth, unemployed, beneficiaries, the retired and ordinary New Zealanders.

We are taking the brunt of the cuts — jobs, access to life-long learning — while the fat cats like Sir Roger Douglas and Bill English don’t give up any of their privileges or rights. They tell us to make sacrifices in a recession, but it’s a matter of “do what we say”, not “do what we do” for them. Anne Tolley sheds crocodile tears about cutting night classes because she needs to make hard decisions during the recession. But she is very generously giving $35 million to private schools. We must fight for state, quality, secular, free education for all!

Night classes provide thousands of people with new skills that lead to jobs, lead to confidence to rejoin the workforce. They help the depressed and the lonely to get out of their ruts and make friends. They help migrants and refugees to learn a new language. The people who really need night classes don’t have much money: the unemployed, the depressed, the lonely. We need cheap night classes for these people. And now Anne Tolley and her friends are cutting these classes. She’d prefer to give this money to the privileged families whose children attend private schools.

People ask why the Government picked on night classes. The reason is obvious. They didn’t expect any fight back. The tutors are part time, the number of coordinators and directors is small, night class participants are dispersed individuals. Adult Community Education was seen to have little or no collective power.

So the attack on night classes is a softening up technique. They have other cuts in store. In the wings are cuts to tertiary education. And they’re also considering how public libraries should be funded. And it will go on and on.

If we don’t mount a vigorous fight back now, then night classes will be destroyed. And once destroyed it will be damned hard to get them back. We are educators; we tell our students to learn from history. Well let us learn from history too. Remember the Employment Relations Bill? What happened when it was introduced? Not much. The union leaders prevented a concerted, collective fight against it. The right of workers to take direct action in support of other unionists was removed. The right to strike for political objectives was removed. It is a very typical divide and rule technique: everyone out for themselves, not for all together. The Employment Relations Act says that the collective interests of workers are limited to their isolated, immediate economic needs.

We at Wellington High want to issue a challenge to our colleagues up and down the country. Organise with your Adult Community Education colleagues. We need the sound of marching feet and chanting voices around the country.  We need to demand that night class funding be reinstated. Make the Government think twice before they introduce any more cuts.

Don’t Sit Back — Fight Back!

Posted: 15 August 2009