Power in a Union

This week secondary teachers meet to vote on whether to accept the government’s new pay offer and, unless something very weird happens, we’ll accept it. I’ve had a quick look back over teaching salaries for the last forty years, and the figures provide an interesting window on our recent economic history. The figures below show the value of the top of the teaching pay scale over time, as expressed in 2019 dollars. It’s a slightly rough and ready conversion, using the Reserve Bank’s CPI figures, but gives a sense of what the teaching salary has been worth over time.

1980         96,000

1985         98,500

1990         70,000

1995         67,000

2000         75,000

2005         78,000

2010         80,000

2015         78,000

2020         85,000

A bunch of things stand out to me. The first is just how brutal the reforms of the Douglas/Lange government were. The election in 1984 saw an initial big boost for teachers, to catch them up with the losses to inflation in the previous five years, but that was quickly eroded by further inflation and a fanatical commitment to slashing spending and ‘reforming’ the economy. In many ways teachers were the lucky ones, we at least kept our jobs, but an almost 30% drop in real incomes is a great reminder of just how viciously working incomes fell during that period, at a time when the fortunes in the financial sector were soaring. The transfer of wealth from the productive sector of the economy to the speculative financial markets was real and in the New Zealand context remains curiously unremarked upon.

I entered teaching in 1990 and became a union rep the next year. Incomes at that point were historically low but our time and energy was largely taken up with other battles. The Richardson/Bolger government introduced the Employment Contracts Act which sought to break union power and in schools we were pushing back against Bulk Funding, which would have undermined forever our collective bargaining power. It wasn’t until the second half of the nineties and the beginning of the twenty first century that we saw a rise in real teaching incomes. During this period there was also a restructuring of teaching pay, with an increase in discretionary management payments so the top of the scale from this point on is probably an understatement of the average teaching income. These gains were not easily won, and the largest round of industrial action I’ve been involved in, including wildcat actions from feisty branches and serious divisions emerging within the union, played a large role in refocusing negotiations on real rather than nominal gains.

Following that stoush and its subsequent pay jump, a consensus of a kind emerged, with negotiations beyond that point taking inflationary adjustments as an agreed starting point. The result was more than fifteen years of relative calm, from the 2002 to this latest round of action, and during this period secondary teaching incomes remained stable. The current proposed settlement then, represents the second significant step forward in my thirty years of teaching, and once again come son the back of a round of industrial action. This time round we’ve benefited greatly from the lead of the primary teachers’ union, who put in three strike days to ramp up the pressure, and it is wonderful to see that a meaningful return to pay parity across the education sector is a key part of this deal. Although the proposed settlement won’t bring us back to the pre-reform levels of teaching income it is heartening to think that over my teaching career real incomes have risen by over 20%, probably more like 25% when unit payments are factored in. That hasn’t happened by accident, but rather represents the gains that only a powerful national union with a membership committed to action can achieve.

Strikes raise the ire of the public, who are quick to see us as self serving, lazy and entitled. But there is a better way of seeing this, I think. Without effective unions, fair pay rates are impossible to defend and work becomes quickly casualised, with workers forced to compete with one another for a decent and sustainable standard of living. The neo-liberal market reforms of the late twentieth century ripped the living standards and lifestyles of our workforce to piece sin so many instances. Every example we have of a union resisting the forces of diminishment and inequality should be celebrated, as a reminder that an effective economy doesn’t just generate wealth, it also champions participation, stability and dignity. I’m proud to have played my part.


2 thoughts on “Power in a Union

  1. Burk says:

    There has to be a better and fairer way. Unions contribute to inequality between workers- between those with unions, and those without. I am one of those citizens appalled by my local public employee unions playing big roles in local elections, of officials whom they then turn around and negotiate with, routinely selling the interests of taxpayers down the river. It is corrupt and incensing. Which is not to say that workers do not deserve to be treated better across the board, or that collusion and greed among employers is not problematic and should not be addressed. But I think unions have been a highly problematic way to do so. The general benefits that unions can point to- weekends, minimum wages, better working conditions, safety regulations.. are only general because they became government policy for all workers, not boons for a few who leveraged some particular aspect of their position (take dockworkers, for instance, who have outsized power and amazingly high pay). Government is where the fight against inequality should be taking place, to extend benefits to all, not just those who happen, though essentially no fault (or defect, or talent) of their own, to work in unionized industries. Remember that not all industries are unionized, and even if they were, the conditions in each would differ and yield differing outcomes. One locus of future activism is better regulation of the labor market, which should be centralized and run by the government, on a consistent, blind / fair basis. And pay transparency in all work places, not just unionized ones.

    • Hi Burk

      I agree that in any economy where unionism is not widespread then inequalities will result. When we moved from compulsory unionism here, for example, employers were quick to established the sorts of low paid, low loyalty casualised work places that have had an awful impact on working families. Good unions give workers a voice and so, to my mind, the best solution will involve high rates of union coverage and membership. I think there’s solid international evidence that this can work, and countries with patchier coverage do seem to suffer more worker exploitation.
      With regard to corruption, I think it’s a long bow to pin that on unions, rather than broader cultures. Some countries do indeed exhibit high levels of corruption within unions, but others don’t. New Zealand, the context I know first hand, doesn’t have a history of union corruption, so I suspect the causes in this case lie elsewhere.
      In terms of Government leading the way, i absolutely agree that Governments bedding in work condition gains is a crucial part of the process. I’m sceptical of the ability Governments to pick up the broader role of negotiating or setting wages, because that will always be a case of fast moving environments and both parties exaggerating their suffering in order to gain leverage. Ensuring a power balance in that negotiation strikes me as a better safeguard than hoping government officials will be immune to the organised lobbying of capital. So long as capital has the means and will to organise itself as an effective lobbying voice, workers are, to my mind, prudent to do the same.

      Thanks for your thoughts


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