New Zealand’s teachers demand better pay and working conditions

Teachers had rejected the recent government offer on pay rise, arguing that it neither accounts for the decline in real wages, nor offers solutions to the understaffing and underfunding of schools

March 20, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
Teachers strike New Zealand
Thousands of striking teachers participate in a march on Queen Street in Auckland, March 16, 2023. (Photo: NZEI via Twitter)

School teachers in New Zealand organized a nationwide strike on Thursday, March 16, calling for more resources and a pay rise that accounts for inflation, among other demands. 

The strike was organized by two of the country’s largest teachers’ unions, the Post Primary Teachers Association (PPTA) and the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI). It was announced in February after talks failed with the Ministry of Education under the newly-formed Labour Party government of Chris Hipkins.

As per the unions, over 50,000 teachers participated in the one-day strike, making it the largest mobilization of the year so far, and largest teachers’ strike since May 2019. The strike was also the second of its kind where primary and secondary school teachers walked off the job in a concerted effort, and the first time ever that kindergarten teachers also joined them.

More than 10,000 teachers and supporters held a march on Queen Street in Auckland on March 16. At least 2,000 rallied outside parliament in Wellington. Meanwhile, similarly large rallies and marches were attended by thousands in Christchurch, Hamilton, Tauranga, Dunedin, and several other cities and towns.

Earlier this year, teachers rejected the government’s proposed pay rise package, arguing that it was well below the demand raised by them. The ministry had proposed a hike of NZD 6,000 (around USD 3,700) over two years for all teachers, which translates to around 5-6% in annual wage hike.

The ministry also suggested a one-off additional payment of NZD 1,300 (over USD 800) for primary teachers, and proposed 15 more hours per term of classroom release time. These proposals, the unions argued, did not account for the high levels of inflation the country has witnessed in the past few years.

“The current offers from the government don’t do enough for teachers, principals or tamariki (children),” said NZEI president Mark Potter in a statement released on March 10. “Strike action is the last thing we want to do, but members want to send a message to the government about how serious we are about needing change.”

“We have been in negotiations for a new collective agreement since May last year so there has been plenty of time for the Government to make us an acceptable offer. Sadly, that hasn’t happened,” said acting PPTA president Chris Abercrombie, explaining the need for the strike in a statement announcing the action in February.

As per reports, in 2022, while overall annual inflation in New Zealand stood at a staggering 7.6%, food inflation spiraled to 12%. Unions claim that even though absolute wages have slightly increased, teachers have witnessed a massive estimated decline of 11% in real wages since 2019.

Insufficient pay deals are not the only issue that teachers want resolved. For years now, teachers have been demanding that the government pay attention to the lack of funding and understaffing in schools, along with issues such as long working hours, high classroom ratios, and low number sick leaves.

“Of course the rising cost of living plays into this, but the bigger picture is that if we are to retain and attract quality educators we must improve work conditions in the sector,” Potter added in the NZEI statement. “This affects tamariki, because teacher’s working conditions are children’s learning conditions.”

The teachers’ strike is only the latest of actions by public service workers against stagnating wages and the high cost of living in New Zealand. As the country is scheduled to hold its next elections by October, opinion polls show the Labour government struggling to maintain its lead against the conservative National Party.

Trade unions and public servants like teachers have been a strong base for the Labour Party, giving the recent strike action and the ongoing teachers’ struggle added significance.