Sunday, April 26, 2009

Pay parity

It’s been my career good luck to avoid taking part in industrial discussions – confrontation is not my style. There was one exception when my role was facilitative; in 1994 I was asked to chair a SSC/NZEI joint working party. By happen-chance I became a bit player in a major education development.

NZEI, the primary teachers’ union, was negotiating for pay parity with its secondary brethren. There had been a strike earlier in the year – on the day Prime Minister Jim Bolger on Morning Report said that maybe NZEI had a point. Hastily up and down the country NZEI pulled paragraphs from its prepared speech. A week before Bolger had asked education minister Lockwood Smith what was the difference between a form 2 teacher and a form 3 teacher. Smith replied that it was between a physics teacher and a new entrance one. Bolger left muttering he knew which was more crucial. His public musings meant NZEI had won its case in principle.

But working through the details proved tricky. Hence the working party and my being asked to be its independent chair, acceptable to both parties and the Government. At the time I was executive director of the New Zealand Council for Teacher Education. The Council gave me clearance to accept the request.

It was tiger country. The Government and its agencies, SSC and the Ministry of Education wanted to cap expenditure and to get in return for parity a system of teacher performance pay. NZEI wanted the pay change but not the assessment scheme. PPTA, fearful of parity’s impact on secondary salaries and even more wary of performance pay, refused to participate.

To assist the working party a contract was let to prepare two background reports. Eight firms tendered; Deloittes were selected. While in association with us they beavered away on we met weekly as a group. NZEI were always well-prepared and passionate in their advocacy. The other side didn’t present requested information, kept delaying and in general time-wasted. Tempers got heated. At one meeting things got so unpleasant that I decided to fling a controlled teacher’s paddy. Snapping a pencil I stood up, announced I was fed up and stormed out of the room to spend a pleasant half an hour in Unity Bookshop. When I went back they were working quietly. I sat down and read my new book for a while. Sometimes adults are like children.

In the interests of fair play I warned SSC that NZEI was doing all the running with Deloittes. Nothing changed. Then when the Education Ministry made a presentation to Deloittes their spokesman said that performance pay was a no-no. It was a complete contradiction of what its working party officers had been arguing, left hand not knowing what its right hand was doing. NZEI’ was jubilant. Its records state I kept a poker face.

So not surprisingly the Deloittes reports supported pay parity as well as advice on how to implement it and opposed performance pay. Lockwood was not pleased. His office rang me demanding an explanation. My reply was simple ‘they were independent, I was merely the chair’. I felt like saying his officials should have warned him but I didn’t. ‘Shortly thereafter the working party was disbanded.

The dispute simmered on with another round of strikes until in early 1998 settlement was reached. Pay parity was entrenched but in the process the government got its wedges in on performance pay and bulk funding.

Despite the heat there was a strange camaraderie within that working party. The experience gave me an inkling of how hostages can bond with their captors. I confess I used to look forward to the challenge and life became duller when it stopped meeting.

Harvey McQueen

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