Teachers Pay-Thinking outside the soapbox

“… the committee considers that teaching is a profession and that teachers are, and should be encouraged to regard themselves as, members of a profession.”  1978 Marshall Report 

“We have a mandate from… teachers who have said they want us to look at planning for industrial action if faced with the prospect of nothing but clawbacks from the Government….”    Kate Gainsford, PPTA President   Press 15 May 2010 

“Industrial action”? In the post-industrial 21st Century?

By largely middle-class  tertiary educated people who have climbed their way out of whatever blue collar lifestyles their families may once  have  had?

By an occupational group whose salaries have done quite well  (not before time) in the last decade, thank you, and which hasn’t  suffered a loss of  income over the last three years  through reduced overtime or the casualisation or loss of their jobs, unlike many of the parents of the children they teach?  (Unless, of course,  they also taught one  of the Community Education courses now canned).

According to international studies such as PISA, New Zealand has one of the most effective education systems in the world.  The  albeit graying cohort of professional teachers  has  played a large part in this success.  But one has to ask the question: is this comparative success in spite of,  or because of,  the rhetoric of the self-styled teacher unions?  

Before negotiations begin tomorrow on secondary school salaries the PPTA’s President Kate Gainsford has predictably announced that a strike plan was already being worked on.  While the last time secondary teachers went on strike was in 2001/2 during a 16 month battle with the government, which led to three one day strikes,  there have been several strike threats in the meantime, for example over salaries in 2007  and now once again over remuneration.

The PPTA is employing the same political reflexes and flexing of muscles rather than minds that it used in the almost decade of annual surpluses inherited by the last Labour government. But the economic context has changed dramatically. There may be some silver clouds on the horizon as well as gold in the Coromandel, but neither can be gainsaid. The budget larder is pretty bare, as the patient English has been pointing out for some time,  in a  futile effort to dampen public sector salary expectations.

Collective pay negotiations are the raison d’etre of the PPTA and the reason why the advocates of bulk funding in the nineties were stomped on in the resulting  political ruckus*.  But if all is fair in love, war and negotiations it may also be counterproductive in the long run if it damages professional credibility.

In 1978, the year of the Marshall Report, I left teaching after a 12 year secondary classroom career, interspersed with secondments for teacher recruiting and a teaching fellowship at UC, partly because the PPTA, of which I had been an active member, was about to embark on its first strikes.  

In the eighties the Association soon managed to rival the Cooks and Stewards Union for the predictability and unpopularity of its threatened or actual strikes and stopwork meetings-not that they were ever strikes in the classic long-term absence from the chalkface sense. It was three strikes but they were never really out.

As somebody who, as a student working in the freezing works from 1959 to 1963,  had watched the standover tactics of the freezing workers union (“all those in favour say ‘aye’,  scabs ‘no'”), and who had written a history thesis in 1965 on Industrial Conflict in New Zealand 1951 to 1961, I thought teachers should use more articulate ways of engaging the public and winning the public relations war  than open votes on “industrial action” which were wide open to group think and intimidation. I still do.

Anachronistic language and inappropriate political behaviour devalues the professional standing of teachers and turns off many natural allies, especially if it is irrelevant rhetoric that  the real industrial unions themselves no longer employ. Some of it would have made real industrial battlers like John A. Lee, on a real soap box, turn pink with embarrassment. 

The EMPU, New Zealand’s largest private sector union, understands that its success as a union is inextricably linked to the performance of the enterprise and the whole economy. Its leaders have to take a whole systems view and be aware of the hard realities of a volatile economy, not just look at one side of the equation out of context. To be credible  the EMPU can’t afford to act like an emu- or emulate the ostrich.

By way of contrast, the teachers’ unions are running some  ineffective we’ll-bring-our-own-crowd protests over issues like National Standards which address the converted, rather than the issues, and miss the opportunity for engaging the wider public in an informed debate.  These campaigns miss the bus entirely and alienate popular opinion.

In Finland there has been a revaluation of the public’s estimation of the teaching profession, brought about by tougher entry standards and a cross-the sectors consensus of the role of education and training in a fast evolving society. This forward-looking approach is demonstrated by the way Nokia has shifted its focus from pulp and paper to cellphone communication technology.

The Nokia knock-on effect runs deeply through other parts of the Finnish economy and is well understood by Finland’s education leaders who would be hard pushed to understand the strategy and tactics employed by education union leaders in New Zealand in their approach to the triennial negotiation ritual.

But then, as the negotiating spoof below shows*, subtlety is not a prerequisite to getting into the negotiating team of either side in any negotiation nor a skill necessarily employed in the actual negotiations.

At least this year the teacher pay talks will feature an interesting contest between performance and skills based elements which may introduce a long overdue meritocratic dimension to counter pockets of entrenched mediocrity.

 #Lyall Lukey 16 May 2010 

http://www.lukey.co.nz/  http://www.smartnet.co.nz

 *Blinks

 http://www.teachersmatter.org.nz/ 

 http://youtube.com/watch?v=WMl4kYmkx94   Puppets not Muppets: good faith negotiation?

 http://youtube.com/watch?v=85NF9NnHRBo&feature=related  The Top 10 Moves of Ruckus

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