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Karl du Fresne

It’s Time to Call the Teachers’ Bluff

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History tells us that when a government takes on a trade union, there can be only one outcome. In 1912, William Massey’s government famously crushed a strike by Waihi gold miners. The following year, the same administration recruited special mounted constables from rural areas – dubbed “Massey’s Cossacks” because of their riding skills – to subdue striking waterfront workers.

In 1951 Sid Holland’s National Party government broke the power of the watersiders and their allied left-wing unions in a dispute that lasted 151 days and left a legacy of bitterness that lingered for decades. Twenty years later, another National government deregistered the Seamen’s Union , thereby ending years of damaging guerrilla-style industrial action promoted by a militant union faction known as the Red Guard. (I remember it well, because as a young industrial reporter I was with the union president, the late Bill “Pincher” Martin, when the news came through that his union no longer legally existed.)

Perhaps the most striking instance of a government challenging union power, at least in modern times, was Margaret Thatcher’s epic confrontation with British coal miners in the mid-1980s. Thatcher’s victory over the miners effectively broke the back of militant unionism in Britain after decades of economically ruinous strikes.

In all the above cases, government action came only after years of union provocation and misguided appeasement by timid politicians, which union militants invariably (and correctly) interpreted as weakness. The short-term results, when the politicians finally acted, were not always pretty, but the public generally regarded the inevitable unpleasantness as an acceptable price to pay for the curbing of union power.

It’s tempting to romanticise the vanquished trade unionists as working-class heroes, but in reality many (like the British miners’ leader Arthur Scargill and the charismatic Jock Barnes, who led the New Zealand wharfies in 1951) were hotheads and egotists, driven by a potent combination of power, vanity and ideology, blind to any considerations other than the interests of their own organisations, and ultimately prepared to see even their own followers destroyed rather than surrender.

From a 2010 perspective, these clashes between governments and unions seem little more than historical curiosities. But are they? The days when powerful blue-collar unions – miners, watersiders, seamen, freezing workers – could bring the economy to a standstill are long gone, reflecting the economic transformation of the past three decades. In some cases the unions were complicit in their own fate, hastening the demise of their industries either by bloody-minded militancy (as in the case of the Boilermakers’ Union, whose industrial blackmail techniques ensured an end to construction projects that depended on them) or by their stubborn refusal to abandon old ways.

But all that has happened is that the centre of union power has shifted. The unions with the greatest strength now – and the ones most prepared to use it – are those representing white-collar occupations and professions, mostly employed by the state.

All of which brings us to the two teachers’ unions, the NZEI and the PPTA, both of which just happen to be locked in disputes with the government right now: the NZEI over national standards and the PPTA over salary and conditions claims.

There is something depressingly familiar about all this. As the power of the old blue-collar unions has faded, so the militancy of the teacher unions has increased. It has become almost a cliché to describe them as the boilermakers and freezing workers of the new millennium. In fact I see from my files that as long ago as 1995, I wrote an editorial about the PPTA headlined Militants of the nineties.

In that Evening Post editorial I wrote: “As employees of the system, teachers have every right to be consulted on changes. They are entitled within reason to oppose moves which they believe are not in the best interests of pupils, and when all else fails they have the same legal right as any other group of employees to take industrial action. But they misuse their strength – and test the country’s patience – when they consistently use their organisational muscle to frustrate, defy and stonewall the legitimate policies of an elected government.”

I also wrote that teachers had misled themselves into believing that they were the sole guardians and arbiters of all that was correct in education. “They have deluded themselves into thinking, in effect, that they have proprietorial rights over the education system when in fact they are merely its servants.”

I know what you’re thinking. That was 15 years ago, and nothing has changed – except that the teachers seem more convinced than ever that they control education and that it’s the government’s function to comply with their agenda, rather than vice-versa.

You can hardly blame them for being bolshie, because clearly it works. The teachers generally get what they want. They have learned that if they dig their toes in, governments will back down – as we saw when PPTA members, by the simple expedient of bullying and intimidating school boards of trustees, thwarted the Bolger government’s attempts to experiment with bulk funding (which was that 1995 editorial was about).

Right now the secondary teachers are threatening to strike if they don’t get the 4 percent salary increase they’re demanding (on top of the 4 percent they got last year, and the 4 percent the year before that – surely you don’t expect teachers to accept the restraints that other public servants have to live with?). And it seems, judging by a recent TV3 News report, that some PPTA members are not above misusing their influence and authority in the classroom by getting pupils to write letters to the Ministry of Education supporting their claims. TV3 reported that the letters were on PPTA-branded stationery and all appeared to have been written from the same template. The suspicion was that it had been done in class time. Disgraceful? Yes. Unprofessional? Yes. Par for the course? Afraid so.

Meanwhile, at the NZEI’s annual conference, primary teachers subjected Education Minister Anne Tolley to a protest that even their pupils would have considered embarrassingly puerile. Tolley’s speech was heard in stony silence – not even a token round of perfunctory applause when she finished – and every time she mentioned “national standards”, the mute delegates all held up protest placards. Outside afterwards, Tolley was heckled and harassed. Discourteous? Yes. Disrespectful? Yes. Childish? Yes. An appalling example? Yes. Par for the course? Most assuredly.

The question is, how much longer will New Zealanders have to tolerate these antics? How many more ministers of education – representatives of a government that the people of New Zealand elected – will be subjected to this sort of humiliating treatment? When will a New Zealand government decide it has had enough petulance, disruption and wilful defiance from the teachers and take them on, just as Thatcher did with the miners?

It’s not enough for the minister to protest lamely that unionised teachers are behaving unprofessionally or inappropriately. She’s supposed to be in charge. Problem is, she looks isolated; there’s very little evidence of support from other senior figures in the government.

On national standards, it’s time for the government to start getting more assertive. It’s not for teachers to decide whether national standards work. That’s a decision to be made at future elections by the people of New Zealand , who pay the teachers’ salaries and expect them to respect the democratic process. This means accepting the government’s right to introduce new and perhaps distasteful policies, just as all other public servants do.

The NZEI has made its objections clear and that should be an end to it. But as long as National appears less than resolute, the NZEI will use every opportunity to sabotage national standards. The teachers will have been greatly encouraged by the fact that Tolley appears to have been left to fight the battle alone, creating the impression (perhaps falsely) that the government has little stomach for a fight. If John Key and his senior ministers are seriously committed to education reform, they should show it.

As for the PPTA, there has been talk of lockouts. This talk came from the PPTA rather than the government and looked like a calculated ratcheting-up of the tension – almost a dare. Well, National should call the union’s bluff. Governments have pussy-footed around on education for too long and the teacher unions just keep getting more cocky and obstructive. The government, having been given a mandate to govern (and still enjoying strong support in the polls), would have moral authority on its side.

It would be interesting to see how tough the teachers are when the other side goes on the offensive. A full-on confrontation would be messy but there is no doubt who would win, provided the government had the balls to see it through. And if previous government-union showdowns are any guide, a resounding defeat for the PPTA would leave the union weakened and demoralised, clearing the decks for a slew of potentially beneficial education reforms that have previously been put in the too-hard basket for fear of teacher resistance.

A few that come to mind are education vouchers, which would enable parents to “buy” their children’s education at the school of their choice; performance-based pay, which would reward and incentivise good teachers and strip away the protection enjoyed by non-performers; bulk funding, which would shift power from the central bureaucracy to school boards; and an end to the perverse Labour-imposed system of zoning, which locks the poor into mediocre schools and creates exclusive zones of privilege (as reflected in stratospheric real estate prices) around sought-after ones.

None of these proposals are radical. They seem that way only because the teacher unions have opposed them so vehemently, knowing that the national union structure – the source of their power and control – would probably start to unravel if they were adopted.

Is this an anti-teacher rant? No. I have known many teachers – both my own and those of my four children – for whom I had great respect and admiration. Good, hard-working teachers deserve far more honour and recognition than they get under the present structure, which supports and protects poor performers under the guise of “collegiality”.

Is it an anti-union rant, then? No. I believe strongly in unions and have held office in one myself. What I object to is the abuse of union power. The teacher unions exert far more control over the education system than is healthy or democratic. They do it only because they have been able to bully successive governments into letting them. But the time has come for the education of our children (and grandchildren, in my case) to be liberated from their grasp.