Pity the poor primary teachers

Roger Partridge
Insights Newsletter
26 April, 2019

The primary teachers’ union, NZEI Te Riu Roa, has called a series of nationwide meetings to decide on industrial action to take place early next month. NZEI proposes primary teachers “work to rule” from 15 May, culminating in a national strike on 29 May.

Despite the disruption this action would cause, teachers appear to have public sentiment on their side.

It is easy to understand why. Primary teachers perform a critical role in educating our children. Yet this is not reflected in their earnings. Over the past two decades, increases in primary teachers’ salaries have lagged median incomes by approximately 25%. This is despite teachers being highly unionised and their terms and conditions of pay being covered by a collective agreement.

In 1998, a beginning primary teacher earned $31,000, which was 15% more than the median worker. A teacher at the top of the primary teachers’ salary scale earned $47,100 (75% more). Today, a beginning primary teacher earns $49,600, which is a shade less than the median worker. And a primary teacher at the top of the salary scale now earns $75,949 (only 43% more).

Of course, there is a difference between how the median worker and a primary teacher are paid. The starting teacher salary is on par with many other professions (accountancy, engineering, law, among others). But unlike teachers, the best among other professions can go on to earn salaries several times those earned by graduates starting their careers.

For primary teachers, things are different. Their union-negotiated collective agreement links pay rises to years of service, rather than to ability or performance. And the pay scale tops out after just seven yearly increments.

Perhaps that is the rub for primary teachers. A union-negotiated pay scale requiring all to be paid alike, regardless of ability, with fixed service-based pay adjustments is bound to limit how much teachers can earn. Teachers’ salaries are not modest despite their union coverage and collective agreement, but because of it.

Pity the poor teachers – or at least the best of them –   who are penalised by a one-size-fits-all collective agreement.

Yet, there may be some solace on the horizon for the teachers. It comes from an unexpected quarter. The government is considering recommendations from the Fair Pay Agreement Working Group to introduce compulsory union-led collective bargaining for other occupations. While this will not solve the primary teachers’ pay claims, before long teachers may find themselves in good company. And then we may be pitying the median worker too.

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