Teachers in New Zealand take a step towards West Virginia, and ponder their next move

A nationwide one-day strike by 50,000 teachers in both the primary and secondary sectors took place in New Zealand on 29 May. It was the first time in the history of teachers’ organisations in this country that the New Zealand Educational Institute Te Riu Roa (NZEI), which covers primary teachers, and the Post-Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA), which covers secondary teachers, had co-operated in a combined action. They were demanding a pay increase, along with measures to relieve the high workloads teachers face, and other steps to relieve the shortage of teachers.

Part of the crowd at rally in Aotea Square, Auckland. Photo: James Robb

A big majority of teachers in New Zealand work in state schools or state-integrated religious schools, and are employed by the Ministry of Education on uniform national pay scales. (A drive by the previous government to introduce charter schools, with the aim of breaking up the national pay scales and pitting teachers in sharper competition with each other, was defeated by opposition from teachers. The present government announced that the handful of charter schools that were established would be integrated into the state system.)

Talks with the government have stalled, with teachers rejecting an offer of a 3% rise; they are demanding 15%, to keep pace with spiralling living costs, especially in housing. Teachers at the rally spoke of having to take second jobs in order to make a living.

Teachers rally outside Parliament in Wellington. Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King RNZ

Large marches and rallies of teachers and their supporters took place in the four main cities as well as in many smaller centres. Significant numbers of students and parents of students participated in these actions in support of the teachers. A majority of the country’s schools closed for the day.

Striking teachers in Auckland filled lower Queen Street as they marched from the waterfront to Aotea Square. The rally filled the square, with the crowd spilling onto the lawn, the Aotea Centre steps and the streets. Stuff estimated 15,000 took part in the Auckland action (though the rough count this reporter made at the rally was approximately 7,000). Both the march and rally were spirited, confident, noisy actions, with chants and home-made banners and placards. Many schools organised picket-lines in their area, then sent contingents marching under their own banner. “You ‘made us use our teacher voice,” one placard said.

“This is the largest industrial action ever by teachers in New Zealand,”  New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) Te Riu Roa President Lynda Stuart told the rally. “We have come too far not to go further.” Further actions, including rolling stoppages where teachers refuse to teach a particular year level for one day, and further nationwide strike action, are planned.

Placard confronts Education Minister Chris Hipkins with his past support for pay rise for teachers. Photo: Newshub

Teachers are a significant part of the electoral base of the Labour Party, which heads the present coalition government. When this government was elected 18 months ago, teachers’ expectations were raised that the steady erosion of their living standards and work conditions might be reversed. However, the Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins, has made it clear however that teachers can expect only ‘disappointment’ from their union action. A feature of the speeches at the rally was attempts to shame Hipkins into delivering on the support he offered teachers before he became Minister. This was also reflected in many of the hand-made placards. Should this orientation continue to be followed, then Hipkins’ prediction of disappointment will likely be borne out. This is a capitalist government: faced with a choice between upholding the prerogatives of capital and protecting their electoral base, they will choose the prerogatives of capital every time. They cannot be shamed. They have no shame.

Teaching is not an industry, and teachers are not industrial workers, but a professional layer. Their work is socially useful, but it creates no wealth, and yields no profit for the capitalist class. It is important to recognise this fact when considering where the actions need to turn. Unlike industrial workers, teachers cannot on their own bring economic pressure to bear on the capitalist class through their strike action.

Teachers pack out Aotea Square, Auckland, 29 May 2019. Photo: James Robb

This does not mean that teachers are powerless to effect changes in society. What it means is that in order to bring about change, they must ally themselves with the one social force that has that power, which is the working class – and in particular its most powerful component, the industrial workers. A broad social movement with workers at its core and centred on the defence of workers’ right to education – which includes the provision of adequate salaries and reasonable working conditions for teachers – must be built.

The outstanding example of such a movement is what erupted in West Virginia in the United States just over a year ago. Teachers wages and conditions have been devastated in the United States by the effects of decades of neglect and deliberate running down of schools, the corrosive, union-busting effects of charter schools, and the erosion of access to health care and social services for all workers. Nowhere was this more true than in West Virginia, where teachers’ pay ranked 48th out of 50 states, and schools were dilapidated, under-resourced, and overcrowded. Hundreds of teaching jobs there remained vacant, as teachers moved to neighbouring states offering substantially better pay. West Virginia has been hard hit by a slump in the state’s coal industry, as coal companies, under the whip of international competition, move production elsewhere to evade unions. The state has one of the highest death rates from opioid overdose.

Thousands of teachers and workers rally in Charleston, West Virginia, February 2018. Photo: NBC

West Virginia teachers began preparing for a walkout months in advance of the strike, demanding higher pay and an end to the ever-increasing cost of health insurance. Crucially, they built a united movement involving not just the teachers but all the school support workers – school bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians and others – in combined actions. In February 2018 30,000 teachers, bus drivers, janitors, cooks and other school workers shut down all the schools across West Virginia, the first teachers’ strike in the state since 1990.

The original plan was for a two-day strike, but when faced with an inadequate response from the state governor, they extended the strike, organising daily rallies outside the state Capitol every day of their walkout, where they were joined by coal miners, retirees, students and others. The demands they raised were common to broader layers, such as the demand to stop the weakening of access to health care.

The actions re-awakened the long traditions of militant unionism among coal miners in West Virginia. Strikers wore red bandannas, a symbol of past pitched battles against mine bosses and state cops. The workers took steps to minimize the impact of the walkout on other workers. Churches, community centres, recreation centres and other groups opened their doors to give children a place to go during school hours. Food drives and soup kitchens were organized to make sure children who rely on schools for their lunch didn’t go hungry.

State officials declared the stoppage illegal, as they had the last time the teachers struck, in 1990. But this time they were unable to shut it down.

Having long argued that ‘there was no more money’ to pay for what the strikers were demanding, both houses of the state legislature approved a pay rise and improved health insurance provisions. “For some reason, they suddenly found the money,” a strike supporter commented. The success spurred similar actions in other states.

A year later the West Virginia teachers were back on the streets to protest an education “reform” bill. The bill included a pay hike for school workers and funding for additional school personnel promised during last year’s strike, but also added provisions eliminating seniority, increasing class size, widening pay differences between teachers depending on “expertise,” and establishing charter schools in West Virginia for the first time. On the first day of the strike, the workers mobilised to shut down schools in one of the 55 counties that tried to break the strike. Having shut those schools down, they massed in the state legislature, where, as hundreds of chanting teachers watched from the gallery, the delegates voted to “suspend indefinitely” the bill.

The legislature of West Virginia is made up of representatives of the twin capitalist parties, the Democratic and Republican parties. So how was this body persuaded to make a concession to the interests of the workers and teachers of West Virginia? Does this contradict what I wrote earlier about the behaviour of capitalist governments and parties upholding the prerogatives of capital at all times?

Not at all. The capitalist legislators were upholding capitalist interests when they pursued the attacks on the teachers’ pay and conditions. And they were also defending capitalist interests when they abruptly changed course: a movement had arisen, built on a foundation of broad working class solidarity, which posed an even greater threat to capitalist interests if it continued to broaden and strengthen. The movement had proved too strong for the legislators, and concessions were their only means to make it go away. That is how all reforms and concessions are prised from the grip of the capitalist rulers.

Teachers, students and others rally Aotea Square, 29 May 2019. Photo: James Robb

These concessions were, of course, not an end to the social crisis confronting teachers and others in West Virginia. But the experience of winning them was crucial. In a world where union organisation and class consciousness have been pushed back, and few workers have any direct or recent experience of their own of waging successful struggles against exploitation and oppression, struggles like that of the teachers and school workers of West Virginia deserve careful study.

By joining their two unions together in common actions in the streets, teachers in New Zealand have taken a big step towards West Virginia. Further steps in that direction will be needed if they are to win their demands.

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3 responses to “Teachers in New Zealand take a step towards West Virginia, and ponder their next move

  1. I broadly agree with you James. Just a couple of things to note. Teachers in private schools, Marx noted, do produce surplus-value because they are producing education as a commodity. Also it is not only industrial workers who produce surplus-value. Anything that is produced as a commodity – ie produced to be sold on the market for a profit – is producing surplus-value. In the 21st century most of the industrial working class is in the ‘Third World’ while the First World contains a great many productive workers (ie workers who produce surplus-value) who are not industrial workers. Capital/ism makes and remakes the working class over and over. A century ago, for instance, I’d say teachers were middle class; more recently their pay, conditions etc have been transitioning them into the working class, although their consciousness lags behind (a lot of teachers still see themselves as middle class professionals, for instance. But, at some point, their consciousness of what they are will catch up with what capital has made them. But crucial to capitalist views of teachers is that teachers’ pay and conditions represent deductions from surplus-value. They need teachers but, since most teachers don’t create surplus-value, the capitalists and those politicians and state officials who front for them, they don’t want to pay them a living wage (which, these days not only consists of food, clothing and shelter etc but also paying off student loans!

  2. Just a brief thought here for now. If teachers are to be described as a “professional layer,” we should also recognize that this is a professional layer that has been for some time in the process of change. Like some other professional layers — and unlike others — teachers are being proletarianized, that is their wages, benefits and living conditions are increasingly coinciding with those of the working class, broadly speaking. Moreover public school teachers have always had more of a connection to the working class than many other professional layers.

    On Phil’s final point I would add that the capitalist class does not need teachers to “pay off” their student loans; only to keep paying interest on them — for years and years.

  3. Thanks Philip and Geoff for your comments – in both cases I think they help to clarify the position of teachers. I avoided (or sidestepped!) the question of the teachers in private schools mostly because I don’t know how many there are in total, nor what proportion they make up of the membership of the PPTA. My guess is that they are less than 10% of secondary teachers in New Zealand, an even smaller proportion of primary teachers, and as a proportion of the membership of the teachers’ organisations, smaller still. But that is only my guess – and I’m not sure where one would find the facts.

    As for the industrial workers, while it is certainly true that the centre of manufacturing and industry has shifted from the imperialist countries to the rising industrial giants like China and India, and that shift continues, there are still industrial workers in the imperialist countries. In New Zealand, there are, for example, workers in dairy factories, wood and paper mills, oil and gas extraction, meat and fish processing, and mining, as well as the remnants of the small manufacturing industries. They are relatively small in number, but the quantity of capital under the command of each worker, and hence their potential economic power, is very great.

    In the case of the teachers themselves, there is certainly a process of proletarianisation, in the sense that their wages and conditions of work are more closely approaching those of workers (while some of the old professions are tending in the opposite direction.) However, I would still hesitate to designate them part of the working class, partly because they create no surplus value, but also partly because they remain part of the capitalist state bureaucracy. There is no escaping the fact that part of their job is imposing capitalist order.

    And in the long term, I’m not sure how true it is that the capitalist class “needs teachers.” Free universal public education was a conquest of the working class in the twentieth century. Only the working class and its allies in the middle class have an interest in defending it. The bourgeoisie only needs for their own children to be educated, for which they need far fewer teachers than there are at present – education for the rest of us is just, as Phil puts it, ‘a deduction from surplus value.’ I think it would be a mistake to underestimate just how far they are prepared to go in dismantling and abolishing universal education.

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