Unions and Balance

I have just returned from our NZEI Te Riu Roa National Executive meeting and because of the continuing attack on education from this government it was another intense one. We are a very united but varied group who really do represent the diversity of our membership. We have early childhood teachers, school support staff, primary classroom teachers, resource teachers of maori and special education and primary principals. We all have direct connections with children, schools and communities where we work and are united in our view that an accessible, quality education system is paramount. A good deal of our discussions over the last two days were around the professional work and research that we are involved in. The highlight of the two days was an excellent presentation from Margaret Wu, an internationally acclaimed expert on educational assessment.

The New Zealand Educational Institute began life in 1883 as a largely professional organisation for teachers and has grown into a union of over 50,000 members that includes a broad range of sectors under the education umbrella. While much of our work has a professional and pastoral care focus the negotiation and support of our many collective employment agreements is very important. We are unapologetically a  "union".

Last month I supported our local Field Officer and a staff member responsible for our student membership for a promotion at the Invercargill campus of Otago University's College of Education. Students have little need for industrial support but NZEI membership provides professional opportunities and connections with practicing teachers. One young student was reluctant to join or be associated with us because her family held the view that unions were "bad" and sadly this view is not uncommon.

The demonising of unions probably occurred from when the first ones were formed and it continues today. The messaging rarely changes, unions are hot beds of militancy, they're full of "socialists" and their goal is the destruction of our economy. Without unions businesses will thrive and our economy will become more competitive. When unions take industrial action they are behaving extremely selfishly and do not care about public inconvenience or the economic consequences.

Prime Minister, John Key, and his Ministers often talk about the need for balance. A balance between the environment and the economy, and a balance between wages and profits. Their definition of what "balance" looks like has seen 80% of of our lowland rivers become seriously polluted, real wages to stagnate, 27% of our young people become unemployed and 25% of our children living in poverty. Their version of balance has seen private sector unions decimated, real wages drop (while CEO salaries skyrocket) and the health and safety of workers compromised. We have also seen 29 miners die and many other workers injured around the country as safety is ignored, working hours are extended and the workforce becomes casualised.

Education Minister, Hekia Parata, recently explained to teachers attending a professional conference during their holidays that the Government's education spending was largely on their salaries and implied that she, as the Minister, expected a good return on that investment. More and more employees are treated like commodities and with increasing casualisation employers are able to turn on and off their supply of workers like a tap. The fact that it is people and their lives that are affected by employer whim is not considered, as exemplified by the POAL dispute and others breaking out around the country.

Any episode of "Undercover Boss" revealed that the value of the employees generally exceeded what they were paid and it was often hard to appreciate, or understand, that their "boss'' would be paid at least 20 times more. The relationship between boss and employee is actually a symbiotic one and without unions this is often forgotten. To many employers their only contact with those who they employ is when they see a printout displaying inputs and outputs, it is the role of unions to humanise the workforce for employers and have their human needs met and their work realistically valued.

Isn't it about time we had real balance restored?


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