Unionisation: Is there a Need for a New Union for Early Childhood Teachers?

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Union KTA Conference Wanganui 1982

March 1, 2017.
By Dr Sarah Alexander.

Former centre manager Garrett Kett has done what few others have dared to do and that is question the representation of the interests of teachers in workplaces not covered by NZEI Te Riu Roa.

The proposal could see teachers being split between belonging to NZEI Te Riu Roa and a new union entity. 

The proposal has come out of growing unrest among teachers, mainly in for-profit centres, over working conditions, employment rights, and declining standards of quality for children.

Mr Kett asked teachers through social media and at meetings what they thought about forming a dedicated union specifically for ECE and the response was mostly positive.

NZEI Te Rui Roa responds

I asked NZEI Te Riu Roa for its comment.  The following is a precis.

There has been some discussion on social media about starting up a new union for ECE teachers. Being part of one union makes it more possible for teachers to speak out about pay and conditions, come together to share practice and discuss how things could be different if we combined our teacher power.      

A lot of organising by members goes unseen (outside of social media) i.e. on worksites, in communities, local networks and in local and national industrial, political and professional advocacy. These hui are essential to have our voices heard. To have the issues fully understood we need to be at the table.

ECE leaders are out and about with the Better Funding tour calling on the government to address funding issues across the country. This is a five month campaign involving NZEI Te Riu Roa and PPTA members because having 60,000 members speaking about their under-funding stories with their communities is a powerful way to influence political change.   

Under-funding is affecting the whole sector and people are feeling aggrieved, unheard and alone. We understand those feelings.

ECE NZEI Te Riu Roa members are leading a campaign called Every Child is Worth It which is about bringing parents and whanau into the discussion so that pressure is applied on the decision-makers for the restoration of funding to ECE. It’s about making a moral argument; protecting the rights of children to quality ECE at a time when there is a lack of leadership from government for ECE.

We know that under-funding has been bad for ECE; since 2010 there has been an erosion of funding rates and this means that services are suffering. Most teachers are now not covered by collective agreements and are isolated/without a network of professional allies. Unions are about looking after each other: industrially, socially and equitably, through PD, having safe spaces to talk at work and beyond, having access to industrial advice and building up people to lead work in their own communities.  

More voices from across the sector means we can be united on the issues that affect us all and stand together. Together in union we can all target the decision-makers for the change we want.

Do teachers find union membership to be attractive and worthwhile?

Data from our employment 2014 Survey can throw a lot of light on the above question.

Of 762 respondents who were ECE employees, 65% surveyed were not members of NZEI Te Riu Roa and 35% were members.

It was found that being a union member or not made no difference when it came to:

  • Being happy in their workplace.
  • Whether they wanted to leave their current position or were seeking a change of job.
  • How often they felt stressed at work.
  • Whether or not they experienced a work-place related injury, mental health or physical problem.
  • Their employer paying the costs of teacher registration for them.

But the data showed that those who were members of NZEI Te Riu Roa had a much higher probability of:

  • Being well paid – according to their own perception of what this meant.
  • Having a greater number of hours of non-contact time per week.
  • Being given more days paid study or professional development leave.
  • Having the cost of first-aid training covered by their employer.
  • Working in a service where the adult-child ratios are at least at legal minimum (as opposed to below legal minimum).
  • Having a workload that they rate as ‘fine” (not just “bearable” or alternatively “excessive”).

Go to our research evidence and survey results section online for data on:

1.  Differences between what early childhood staff actually want of a union and NZEI’s perception of its role
2.  The ability of the NZEI Te Riu Roa to represent staff at privately-owned ECE services
3.  Its relevance to staff at different types of services (e.g. home-based, hospital-based, childcare, kindergarten, kohanga reo etc.)
4.  Relevance of union membership for staff in casual and permanent teaching positions, students, and management positions
5. Who the union mostly attracts – staff who are younger, middle-aged or older?
6. Why some early childhood staff join NZEI and others don’t.

Historical context and what would be possible and/ or effective today

It is proposed by Mr Kett that the ECE sector has its own dedicated union.  This has been the case previously. 

There was the KTA (Kindergarten Teachers’ Association) which represented kindergarten staff exclusively, was hugely vocal and never afraid of any education minister – not even the very tough Hon. Merv Wellington who in 1982 when asked how he could justify cutbacks to kindergarten and preschool services considering the Government’s awareness of the importance of early childhood education, he replied “To save money”.

In 1984 the KTA led teachers to hold a national strike!

Union KTA Conference Wanganui 1982

The ECWA (Early Childhood Workers Union) was formed in 1982 and went on to establish the first industrial award for childcare workers.

In 1990 KTA and ECWA were amalgamated into one early childhood union (the Combined Early Childhood Union of Aotearoa, CECUA) in recognition that childcare centres sat alongside kindergarten in also providing education.  

In 1994 CECUA amalgamated with NZEI in recognition of early childhood education as part of the education system alongside schools.

Would a new union for early childhood education (targeting those working in childcare centres) be in the best interests of these teachers? Or would it be divisive and reduce the ‘collective voice’?

Whatever is your opinion on this, looking back on the history of unionism in early childhood education one thing is clear – and that is that employees need protection. 

Unions negotiate collective employment agreements and advocate on behalf of employees. A registered union has to have at least 15 members. There would be nothing stopping teachers working in any large centre or centre group from forming their own union, and enabling teachers within their service to have representation.


Some suggestions

1. Cost is one factor limiting uptake of union membership. An informal online survey conducted by Mr Kett found that out of 364 responses to a question on what membership fee teachers would feel comfortable paying per week 70% ticked the lowest amount option provided of $6.00. Because the financial cost of union membership matters, perhaps if NZEI wanted to grow its membership of early childhood teachers then it could look at removing this barrier.  It may be worth NZEI considering offering something like a one-off $1.00 membership rate for the first year to ECE teachers not currently covered by a collective agreement. Would this make sense?  

It may make sense if it results in a significant number of teachers signing up, boosting the ability of NZEI to have its voice heard and presence felt and be seen to be representing the views of teachers and their needs. However, it can be the case that the teachers who are paid the least and can least afford to join a union are more likely to experience employment issues and need legal representation, a cost for any union that can only be recouped through membership fees.

2. At present NZEI Te Riu Roa appears focused on lobbying for increased funding for the sector, which if won would probably led to higher wages for kindergarten staff but may not directly benefit teachers in the for-profit sector particularly when business lobbyists argue that the market should set the pay rates. Perhaps it needs to think strategy and think of a more strategic approach as the KTA did in bringing parents and everyone onside in its battle against cutbacks in the 1980s.

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