Support staff head into this year’s bargaining with a call for sweeping changes to their collective agreement. They want recognition for their pivotal role in schools, a career path, better pay and job security. Michelle Nixon reports.

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Support staff make up nearly a third of the school workforce, and play a critical role, says NZEI Te Riu Roa immediate past president Ian Leckie. “They are essential to ensure all children can fully participate in learning and other school activities. Yet many of these workers have no certainty of employment from one term to the next because the funding for their positions is ad hoc and tenuous.”
He says major changes are needed to the way schools are funded so that they can give support staff a fair living wage” currently many earn little more than the minimum hourly rate of $13.75.
School librarians, teacher aides, IT support and administration staff met around the country in August and September to discuss the proposed new collective agreement. Half the support staff workforce belongs to NZEI Te Riu Roa” that’s 10,500 members.

Line in the sand

NZEI Te Riu Roa lead organiser Denise Cornford says the broad aim is for all schools to have appropriate, necessary numbers of support staff, and for those staff to have meaningful progression along a career path. She says the agreement needs to be modernised. “We’re putting a stick in the sand” now is the time.”
At the heart of the claim is a new model recognising and acknowledging the importance of support staff and their professionalism. “We need to reflect the development of what support staff do. The aim is to have a base rate and add on components. We’ve reshaped grades and classifications in a simpler, fairer way and included extra pay for management roles and for additional fixed-term responsibilities.”
The fixed-term allowance would compensate administration staff for the huge swathes of extra time they’ve had to spend on the botched Novopay system. Denise says the long-term aim is for support staff to receive the living wage ($18.40 an hour)*.

Too hard basket

Support staff are a diverse group with a huge range of roles and tasks” they include executive assistants at large secondary schools with high-level financial responsibilities, caretakers and janitors and also science technicians, librarians and teacher aides. But they’re all lumped in together in the current collective agreement. And over the years disparities have developed over pay, long service leave and redundancy” the various grades and the steps are a mishmash. For example, associate grade B has eight steps, but administrative grade B is made up of 14 steps. It’s not clear what the core jobs are, and there are inconsistencies in definitions and classifications” schools advertise jobs at a certain grade, then the job can change, but it’s not regraded. But no government has wanted to address the problems, seeing it as too hard.

“Nice to have”

NZEI Te Riu Roa wants all support staff to be centrally funded, not bulk funded from the operations grant. Under the current system nothing is guaranteed; even if support staff win pay rises through negotiations, or earn incremental increases based on length of service, often schools can’t afford to honour them.
Schools’ operations grants are woefully inadequate, struggling to keep up even with inflation. As a result, teacher aides, for example, have little job security because other demands on the grant can shorten or cancel their hours. They are essentially seen as “nice to haves”. When the squeeze goes on, support staff lose out because they’re competing with essentials like” well, like toilet paper.
At the paid union meetings (PUMs) held to present the new claim, almost all members voted in favour. Negotiations begin in November.

Mister Fix-it

Stephen Carroll is an IT technician at Wellington Girls College (roll 1350), where his role is solving computer problems for the teaching staff. He says the proposed new structure is a whole new ball game, bringing in flexibility and trying to address things such as qualifications for roles such as his, and recognition of staff responsibility for special projects, such as Novopay. “That’s just being treated professionally; that’s one of the conditions we know we have to fight for.”
Secure tenure and a professional development path are the keys to the proposed structure, he believes.
He’s wholeheartedly behind the living wage concept, saying it would make a big difference, even though some see it as a tough sell politically. “It’s going to cost a lot of money to implement (and) the government is taking a hands-off approach to anything that costs more.” He says the school couldn’t survive without support staff doing what they do professionally. “We are not paid anything like what we deliver.”
Stephen says his current income is barely subsistence level, especially since he works just 30 hours a week, and he’d triple his pay in the private sector. But he likes the job and the people; “the only thing I don’t like is the amount of pay I’m not getting.”

Dream job

Helen Muxlow is library manager at Karori West Normal school; a job she’s held for four years.
“I love my job inside out. I’m very lucky – I have a very supportive management team and the library is viewed as the heart of the school.” She says she’s grown in the job with support from school management. “I’ve done extramural studies and a National Library course, and I’ve run professional development for the staff” it would be nice if all schools had the support for their libraries that I’ve had.”
Helen says she came to the paid union meeting mainly to support teacher aides and thinks the most important part of the negotiations is the living wage: “That’s a goal I’d really like to think that could be rolled out across all schools in New Zealand. The government needs to acknowledge schools don’t run without their support staff.”
* A living wage is defined as “the income necessary to provide workers and their families with the basic necessities of life. A living wage will enable workers to live with dignity and to participate as active citizens in society.”