Public Worker Strikes in New Zealand Are the first Major Headache of Jacinda Ardern

Approximately 29,000 public school teachers in New Zealand went on a full day strike on August 15, demanding higher wages and improved working conditions. An estimated 400,000 school children were struck by the strike, which followed a similar disruptive strike by nurses last month. These large-scale labor campaigns pose a serious challenge for the center-left coalition government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who was elected last year with trade union support. Grant Duncan, associate professor in politics at Massey University in New Zealand, discusses the political significance of the strikes in an e-mail interview.

WPR: What are the main problems for the discontinuation of recent teachers and nurses and can we expect more actions in other sectors in the future?

Grant Duncan: The strikes mainly relate to salaries, but also to working conditions. Teachers and nurses – and also midwives, specialists in learning support, school bus drivers and others – are not paid at a sufficient level to start a family, especially in view of the rising costs of housing in large cities. Their salaries also do not recognize the public value, workload and social responsibility of their work. In addition, long working hours, understaffing and excessive paperwork have taken their toll.

Teachers in New Zealand are also faced with complex social problems in the classroom. For example, they are often responsible for students with special needs or who speak little English despite a lack of specialized training. After class, they must continue to work to meet rigorous assessment and reporting requirements. The situation is not better for nurses, who report long shifts and excessive caseloads, as well as safety problems arising from aggressive patients and visitors. Patient care and safety are at risk as a result of overwork. These professionals feel frustrated because it is becoming increasingly difficult to do their job well, and their relatively modest income hardly compensates for the stress.

The current offer from the Ministry of Education of a salary increase is considerable: 14 percent over three years for new teachers and 6 percent for experienced teachers. The primary school teachers, however, require a 16 percent increase over two years and the two parties still have to reach a final agreement.

Similar problems can be found in the private sector of New Zealand, but as workers in the private sector are usually not affiliated to a trade union, they are not entitled to collective bargaining and no right to strike. The poor working conditions of drivers and couriers have recently been in the news, for example. The economic growth in New Zealand is largely due to the fact that more employees, including migrants, have to log longer for low wages, and less through innovation and improved productivity.

WPR: What is the political significance of these strikes, and what are the fiscal and budgetary restrictions that prevent the government from joining the demands of the trade unions?

Duncan: After nine years of a conservative government led by the National Party, the recent change in a center-left coalition government of the Labor and populist New Zealand first parties, supported by a trust and supply agreement with the Green Party, apparently expectations of professionals in the public sector. These workers tend to support Labor and the Greens, so the strikes are a thorn in the eye of the Labor-led government.

But this is also a government whose budget commitments leave little room for raising incomes. To win election, Labor had to show fiscal responsibility. The party has entered into a pre-electoral obligation with the Greens to limit public spending and to strive for debt reduction. The ratio between government debt and GDP in New Zealand is already low compared to other countries and is close to the 20% government target. But Labor also promised to eliminate fees for tertiary education for newcomers, eventually rising to three years of state-subsidized research. The coalition agreement with New Zealand First also came with substantial budgetary costs, which were largely spent on regional development projects and on the overseas development aid program, particularly on the Pacific islands.

All this has left little to the budget for teachers and nurses. The government is solvent and can easily borrow, but refuses to do so, citing the need to "save for a rainy day." For example, a rainy day could be another destructive earthquake, a volcanic eruption in Auckland or the next global economic crisis. meltdown. Teachers and nurses may answer that it has been raining for them for some time.

Ardern received cheers and applause when she spoke with prominent teachers outside the parliament last week. She agreed with the call for a better deal and shared their concerns for the welfare of children, but she asked for more time while the government and the education sector are working together to tackle the problems.

WPR: How does the Ardern government manage its policy priorities differently and how have the first months in office been received by the base and by the wider public in general?

Duncan: The 2017 elections led to an unusual result from the government. The party that received the largest share of votes and seats in the proportional electoral system was the incumbent National Party, but could not itself form a majority coalition. The balance of power was held by New Zealand First, which eventually concluded an agreement with Labor, and not with the National Party. The three parties that form the new coalition government – Labor, New Zealand First and the Greens – have a clear majority in the Lower House, but have to negotiate under their various priorities.

So far, the new prime minister, Ardern van Arbeid, has held multiparty negotiations and led the government extremely well, while giving birth to a baby and taking six weeks of maternity leave. She has a remarkable ability to make empathetic and sincere contact with people in person and through social media, and her popularity remains high.

Together, the three government parties hold their majority in public opinion polls, but the differences are certain, especially as the next elections are approaching – probably in 2020 – and the smaller parties want to differentiate themselves in the eyes of the electorate. The National Party of the opposition also holds its support, which floats around the years & # 39; 40 in the most recent polls.

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