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Teachers Strike Against Government’s Self-Imposed Austerity

Teachers Strike Against Government’s Self-Imposed Austerity

Aotearoa’s education system is in crisis.  A perfect storm of underfunding, understaffing, low pay and long hours is causing people to leave the teaching profession in droves.  This exodus is demonstrated in two alarming facts: one, that between 2010 and 2016, there was a 40% drop in student teachers; two, and even worse — that nearly half of all new teachers are dropping the career in their first five working years.  Principals are feeling the pain as well: a study was released last year showing that too much work and unsafe hours are resulting in principals in primary schools experiencing dangerously high amounts of stress, burnout and sleep deprivation.

This education crisis is the direct result of a decade of chronic underfunding.  Between the 1999/2000 and 2008/09 budgets, when Helen Clark was Prime Minister, weekly spending on education adjusted for inflation and population size rose by $12.32.  By the 2017/18 budget, after nine years of National in power, real weekly spending per capita had decreased by $3.37.

Year after year, our teachers have put up with these conditions.  But no more. In August 2018, the New Zealand Education Institute (NZEI), the union for primary and intermediate school teachers and principals, went on strike; they struck again in November.  Their demands include the hiring of more staff, a 16% pay rise, a reduction in average class sizes for Years 4-8 from a ratio of 1 teacher to 29 students down to 1:25, and significantly more paid time for teachers to complete their extensive out-of-classroom responsibilities, such as marking.

It goes without saying that these demands have not yet been met.  The Ministry of Education have made weak offer after weak offer, with the latest (and, due to the pressure of the strikes, strongest) proposal involving a 3% pay rise each year for three years.  But NZEI members, sick of being underappreciated, are not backing down.

Not only are primary school teachers and principals not backing down — they are being joined by the secondary school union!  Members of both NZEI and the Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) voted earlier this month for an historic joint strike, which will include up to 50,000 workers across Aotearoa.  The two unions are entering this dispute with fighting talk, promising “the biggest strike this country has ever seen” to tackle the “unprecedented crisis in education”.

Independent polling has shown huge public support for the teachers’ struggle, and overwhelming agreement with the demands raised, with 89% of Kiwis agreeing that more funding for education should be a priority, 88-89% agreeing that there is a teacher shortage, 83% agreeing that teachers need a pay rise, 73-76% agreeing that class sizes should be reduced, 79% agreeing that teachers need more time for planning, preparation and assessment, and 91% agreeing that more support is needed for students with additional needs.

The only way to tackle the epidemic of low pay and poor conditions which scourges this country is for workers to organise, stand up, and fight back.  Primary teachers, nurses, public servants, bus drivers, fast food, cinema and retail workers, and many others led the fightback with their strikes last year. So far this year, secondary teachers, junior doctors, and still more union members — almost too many to count! — have joined them.  To all those who have created this strike wave in the last 18 months: solidarity.

The NZEI-PPTA “mega-strike” on 29 May 2019.

The Labour-led Government has had a different message to the strikers.  Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern insists that she “understands the frustration of teachers and principals”, but that her administration are “doing as much as we can right now for the education sector.”  The same line is being given to our teachers as was given to nurses last year: there is no more money, and therefore the lukewarm proposals being offered are as good as it gets.

Two responses are desperately needed to the Government’s position.  One, to highlight the blatant dishonesty of the claims Labour are making; and two, to be clear to all inside the union movement and the working class that the Labour Party refusing to meet demands for better pay and conditions does not mean we should give up hope of victory.

NZEI strike on 15 August 2018.

No More Money?

The Ministry of Education’s offer to teachers and principals constituted a package of $698 million over four years.  NZEI’s demands alone add up to $900 million over two years. So just one of the teachers’ unions are demanding nearly 30% more money, to be delivered twice as fast — that’s a lot, right?  An unreasonable request?

The (allegedly) independent Chief of the Employment Relations Authority (ERA), lawyer Jim Crichton — who was appointed to the ERA by Labour in 2004, and promoted to Chief in 2015 by National — certainly thinks so.  Crichton has called NZEI’s demands “totally unrealistic”, and proclaimed that the Government’s offer was “a handsome and competitive proposal in the current fiscal environment”.

On the contrary — the “current fiscal environment”, when cast into the light of day, is overwhelmingly positive.  Our Government currently has a $3.5 billion surplus, while net core Crown debt is down to 20.1% of GDP. Public debt, which has been far lower than the public debt of most OECD countries for over a decade, is projected to keep falling over the next five years.

If the Government did need extra cash — say they wanted to pay down debt and invest more in education at the same time — they could always raise more revenue by increasing taxes.  Granted, the majority of working people would be angry at a tax rise right now — and they’d be right to be angry, as making ends meet is tough enough as it is.  But the richest group of New Zealanders are not paying their fair share right now. Far from it — the top 20% of the population own nearly three times as much wealth as the bottom 80%, and even within the top 20%, over a third of the wealth is held by the top 1%.  Taxing the super-rich even a fraction more could raise the money to meet the demands of both teachers’ unions several times over — and the elite are so unfathomably wealthy that they wouldn’t feel one bit of difference.

Source: Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2018. The Databook and accompanying Report are available for download here — see page 156 of the Databook, Table 6-5: Wealth shares and minimum wealth of deciles and top percentiles for regions and selected countries, 2018.

There’s no crisis in the Government budget, and there’s no lack of money to go around right now — quite the opposite, the country’s wealth is simply not shared fairly.  But even if there was barely any cash in the Treasury, that would still be no excuse to abandon teachers and principals to weather the raging storm of the education crisis.  If we can’t afford to look after those who have chosen to dedicate their careers to nurturing and educating future generations, what can we afford?  What NZEI and PPTA are asking for would be a price worth paying regardless.

Self-Imposed Austerity: Why Labour Aren’t Delivering

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Education Minister Chris Hipkins, and representatives of NZ First and the Greens, face the NZEI rally in Wellington during last August’s strike.

“We want to attract the very best teachers, provide them with ongoing development opportunities throughout their careers, ensure they are well paid and respected, and receive all the support that they need to thrive in their roles”

This was the education policy campaigned on by the Labour Party in the 2017 election.  On paper, it aligns entirely with what NZEI and PPTA are asking for. Why, then, are Labour not even coming close to honouring their promises, and instead refusing to meet the demands of teachers who have faced over a decade of appalling treatment from the National Government?

The answer lies with another key policy Labour committed itself to, alongside the Greens, during the last election: the Budget Responsibility Rules (BRR).  These self-imposed rules chained Labour and the Greens to the logic of austerity. The two main parties of the centre-left not only promised they would run surpluses and reduce debt — which, as explained above, is largely unnecessary given how rosy the Government accounts are looking right now — but, alarmingly, they made a pledge to keep state spending at the average of the last 15 years: 30% or less.  That wasn’t just a commitment to unnecessarily prudish management of the existing pot of money. It was a promise to continue the era of small government, no matter what.

Aotearoa didn’t always have a small, fiscally conservative government.  Before 1984, we had one of the most generous welfare states in the world, alongside comparatively high taxes on the rich, and among the highest levels of union density in the OECD.  That all changed between 1984 and 1993. Right-wing governments, led first by Labour, then by National, flogged off state assets in a fire sale, slashed funding for public services, attacked the unionsended full employment while decimating welfare, and made the tax system far less progressive than it had been previously.  The top income tax rate was halved, from 66% on the highest earners down to 33%, and introduced instead was the deeply regressive Goods and Services Tax (GST), which disproportionately hits the poorest in society.

35 years after this assault began, and we still live in the long shadow of ‘trickle down’ economics, otherwise known as neoliberalism.  No government since 1984 has even begun to challenge this framework.  Labour and the Greens proved with BRR that they have no intention of doing so either.  But the strike wave of the last 18 months has presented the challenge to the Government: if you won’t end austerity, we’ll fight you until you do.  For the demands of the 50,000 angry teachers cannot be met until and unless the Budget Responsibility Rules are cast into the dustbin of history.

Where Austerity Comes From

But why?  Why would the Labour Party, which came from the union movement and has always claimed to represent workers and the poor, hold to a economic doctrine which prioritises low taxes, small government and prosperity for the top 10% over the interests of teachers, nurses, and the rest of the working class?

Such a question can only be answered by understanding the very heart of our economic, political and social system: capitalism.  It is capitalism which creates a structural separation between those who create all the world’s wealth, the working class, and those who profit from it: the bosses, shareholders, landlords and bankers.  The capitalist class, the tiny minority at the top of society, hoard extraordinary wealth to themselves, while everybody else carries the cost, suffering under the crushing weight of unspeakable inequality.

Austerity is endemic to this capitalist system.  The welfare state, which provided free basic health and education services to the working class, and insured against unemployment and old age, was a victory won by the workers through huge industrial and political struggle in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  It always endured in spite of the capitalist class.  The capitalists got their revenge, however, as they set about dismantling the welfare state as soon as they possibly could.  They made sure to break the power of the trade unions in the process. That’s why public health and education are always under attack by the capitalist class — and it’s why our governments, whatever their intentions, are always held to ransom by those who truly control the economic and political levers of power.

Ardern, Robertson, their Labour colleagues and their Green allies, may very well want to deal with the crises which have emerged in health and education in the past 35 years.  They may well want to solve the housing crisis and end poverty, as they claim. It’s not necessarily the case that their intentions are bad, or that they are dishonest — we have no real way of knowing whether or not they are.  But ultimately, that’s not what matters. What matters is that in practice, Labour and the Greens cannot solve our problems for us — they do not have the power to do anything about the capitalist system as a whole. But that is not for a second to say that we should give up hope of a better system.  The people with the power to make the world a better place are the very workers who have been on strike in 2018 and 2019.

Socialist Politics Is Needed To End Austerity

The strikes of the last 18 months have shown exactly how we can fight back against this rigged system, and exactly how we can win.  When workers go on strike, it’s not just another protest or demonstration. It demonstrates, in a microcosm at first, greater truths about the system we live under: that workers are the ones who really allow society to function; that we can shut down capitalism if we have the will to do so; and, ultimately, that we can take over and run the world in a far better way ourselves than the way the ruling class so desperately want us to.

The struggle being fought by teachers, nurses, junior doctors, public servants, bus drivers, fast food, cinema and retail workers, and so many others, is not just a collection of different struggles aiming for better pay and conditions within a range of different workplaces.  It’s a struggle for a better world for everybody, being fought on many different fronts, with currently separate goals, but with the potential to change everything. It’s a struggle that’s also being fought through school strikes, not just by teachers, but also by the students they are teaching, who have so far struck twice for climate action, and intend to do so again.

Low wages, long hours, underfunding and understaffing of services, precarious contracts, the housing crisisthe mental health crisis, and even the climate crisis, can all be defeated — if the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle is found.  That missing piece is socialist politics. Socialist politics is what is needed to connect the dots, make the links between disparate struggles, and bring people together from industrial and social movements, putting forward common sense demands which come from a vision of life beyond capitalism.

Free, high-quality housing, healthcare, education and public transport for all; higher wages across the board; the end of poverty and involuntary unemployment; the abolition of taxes on working class people; the rapid and just transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy — these should not be far-off, crazy-sounding pipe dreams.  These ideas can and should become reality, if we are willing to stand together and fight for them. The people and the planet should always come before profit.

Another world is possible, and the striking teachers are showing the way to get there.



This article has been republished. You can read the original here.

Elliot Crossan is a socialist writer and activist.

31 May, 2019

Posted by Elliot Crossan in New Zealand Labour Party, New Zealand politics, 0 comments