On a collision course?

March 2010

 

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JOHN GERRITSEN previews this year’s teacher pay talks

For the past six years, peace has reigned on the school sector’s industrial relations front. Collective agreements with three-year terms have reduced the incidence of negotiations, while pay rises of three to four per cent each year during that period have kept the teacher unions’ members relatively happy.

All that looks set to come to an end in the middle of this year when the collective agreements for primary and secondary school teachers expire.

Though negotiations have yet to begin, it is already difficult to see them running peacefully. In fact, all the ingredients are in place for a real stoush.

In one corner stands a government that is determined to keep state sector pay rises to a minimum. In the other are teacher unions determined to win pay rises for members who are implementing the revised curriculum, introducing national standards in primary schools, and who in secondary schools are shifting to the use of revised unit and achievement standards.

Adding to the tension is the government’s Budget commitment to saving $50 million a year or about 1.5 per cent from the teacher payroll through “changes to school staffing parameters”. That cut starts in the 2011-12 financial year with a saving of $45 million. So even before negotiations have started, the government will be seeking not merely a low pay rise for teachers, but a clear saving from their payroll.

Then there is the bad blood between primary teachers and the government over national standards and the natural antipathy between teacher unions and National-led governments.

It’s not hard to see where all this is leading. In fact, one sector observer describes the situation as a “perfect storm”.

Right now the unions, the PPTA and NZEI are finalising their claims through members’ meetings around the country. The PPTA has already said it is asking members to seek a four per cent pay rise and expects to table its claim 30 days before the expiry of the current collective agreement on June 30, while the NZEI expects its negotiations to start on July 1.

The sums of money involved are not trivial. The primary teacher payroll is expected to run to $1.89 billion this financial year while that of the secondary sector will be about $1.37 billion. Add to those figures more than $158 million for special education teachers and the school teacher payroll totals more than $3.42 billion per year. A one per cent pay rise for all school teachers will cost the government $34 million each year.

The School Trustees Association is a party to the negotiations, sitting in on the actual talks and representing the views of its members. General manager Ray Newport says that even though the government and union positions are not yet known, things do not look good for this year’s negotiations.

“It is probably reasonable to assume there will be a degree of mismatch between teachers’ and principals’ expectations vis-a-vis affordability,” he says. And that means the talks could be difficult.

The message about affordability of state sector pay rises was clearly stated by the government last year. PPTA president Kate Gainsford says the union has heard those messages from Prime Minister John Key and Minister of Finance Bill English. At the heart of those messages was the warning that across-the-board pay rises were a thing of the past and any increases that were awarded would be in exchange for productivity increases.

But Gainsford indicates that secondary teachers will not be going into the next round of negotiations with expectations lowered by the state of the economy and by the government’s rhetoric. She argues that if the government is serious about increasing growth and productivity it should spend more on education and notes that the government has itself talked about valuing education.

She also suggests that teachers are part of a global workforce and that New Zealand teachers are sought after, sometimes aggressively. Within that global workforce, the teachers of Canada and Australia have won pay rises in the order of three to four per cent with three-year terms to their agreements, she says. The inference is that if New Zealand wants to hang on to its teachers, it needs to offer salaries that are competitive with other nations.

Gainsford says the union is informed by those factors, but notes there is not a lot of commonality between the union’s view of the situation and the government’s stance with regard to state sector pay rises.

NZEI president Frances Nelson indicates her union may be more in tune with the government’s austerity drive. She says the union is aware of the economic context and all involved in the negotiations need to be realistic in their expectations.

But she also says the union wants to be an active participant in the pay talks – it doesn’t want to be confronted with a flat offer of no pay rise.

On the issue of productivity gains in return for pay rises, Nelson says there needs to be a lot of discussion between teachers, the government, school communities and boards of trustees about what productivity looks like in schools. Until there is clarity around that, any talk about rewarding productivity is merely tilting at clouds, she says.

She says the NZEI has already done a lot of work on good teaching and before this round of talks even begins, it wants to see further steps in work on ‘mentor teachers’ – a senior role piloted by the union, ministry and School Trustees Association in the Hawke’s Bay as a way of providing good teachers with a new career path. Known as the practice-based attestation pilot, it saw good teachers recognised for their ability to mentor their peers – both beginning and more experienced teachers. The 2007 collective agreement provided for a variation that would see teachers who participated in the pilot and were recognised as mentor teachers allowed to advance past the current top step in the teachers’ salary scale.

Before this year’s bargaining begins, Nelson wants to see that aspect of the collective honoured and a decision made on whether to roll the position out nationally. It is worth noting here that secondary teachers already have a similar role, the specialist classroom teacher.

But what of national standards – the issue currently pitting the NZEI against the government. How will it feature in the pay talks? Nelson says the union would like to keep national standards as a separate issue from the collective agreement. “How realistic that is as a goal remains to be seen,” she says, noting that there are still several months before talks begin, but also that the union’s membership might not see the issues as separate.

Though Nelson is playing down the likelihood of a serious stoush in this year’s pay talks, there is one issue on which there appears to be no middle ground – the government’s plan to cut $50 million a year from the teacher payroll. “We don’t see how that can happen,” she says. Primary school rolls are increasing and $50 million cannot be cut without compromising quality.

The PPTA is also concerned by the plan. Kate Gainsford says it is a real threat. Even if it is achieved by attrition, thus avoiding redundancies, it will result in larger classes.

But Nelson again avoids predicting a bust-up over the issue. To date, there has been no communication to suggest how the government might save the money and “there is no point jumping the gun until we have something to discuss”.

For her part, the Minister of Education, Anne Tolley had little to say about the negotiations. She did not share her expectations about possible difficulties in this year’s talks but ruled out the introduction of performance-related pay for school teachers.

She also reiterated the government line about the affordability of pay rises.

“This year’s teacher collective agreement negotiations will need to reflect the current economic situation. New Zealand is just starting to recover from the economic recession and we need to be very careful about where we spend the education dollar. All public sector employers are exercising restraint,” she said in a statement.

Tolley also noted teachers’ previous pay rises and the cost to the government of any future increases. “Teachers got a four per cent pay increase in 2007, 2008 and 2009. A one per cent pay increase for primary, secondary and early childhood teachers would cost taxpayers an extra $50 million per year,” she said.

All of which provides the expected dampening of expectations ahead of this winter’s pay talks.

What will actually happen when negotiations commence later in the year remains to be seen. The smart money would be on protracted and difficult negotiations, but you never know what will be brought to the table.

How others are faring

The experience of other public sector workers’ pay talks does not bode well for teachers this year. Public Service Association (PSA) national secretary Brenda Pilott says public service employers have entered talks offering no pay rise at all for staff and none of the public service negotiations the PSA currently has in train are near settlement.

Those include Inland Revenue, the ministries of education, justice and social development and will soon include the Department of Conservation. The justice ministry negotiations have been running since October last year and recently escalated into industrial action.

“It’s very difficult to get pay movement,” Pilott says, describing talks as very difficult. “Public servants are not expecting big movements, but they are not expecting nil... the discussions are really about how do we assist in departments creating productivity gains?”

Pilott notes last year’s two per cent settlement for police as a possible benchmark for public sector pay talks this year. That settlement was reached through binding arbitration and is seen as a fair deal given the economic climate, she says.

She also notes the strength of the teachers’ unions, saying the high proportion of union membership in the profession is a real strength and strongly linked to successful bargaining outcomes.

Shadow of the past

The last time a teachers’ pay round turned nasty was the negotiation of the secondary teachers’ collective agreement in 2001-2.

Lasting 14 months, the dispute saw strikes as well as wildcat industrial action by regional divisions of the PPTA. In Auckland, the union’s members refused to participate in extracurricular activities and in Canterbury, members rostered students home.

At the heart of the dispute was a higher-than-expected workload caused by the introduction of the NCEA, but Minister of Education Trevor Mallard did not help matters with comments that angered many teachers.

Eventually the negotiations went to mediation and resulted in extra money for an NCEA allowance, four hours of non-contact time per week and more teachers to cover those hours.