On 4 August 2009, teachers and other staff members at Wellington High School in New Zealand’s capital walked off the job to protest the National government’s gutting of Adult and Community Education (ACE) night classes. Despite heavy rain, hundreds of students, parents, ACE participants, trade unionists and political activists marched with the teachers to Parliament. The demonstration, which was extensively covered in the media, succeeded in focusing national attention on the government’s attacks on ACE, which provides training for 220,000 working-class New Zealanders every year. While slashing ACE funding from $16 million to $3 million, the government simultaneously increased private school funding by $35 million.
The teachers’ action was initiated by Adaire Hannah, an IBT supporter in the Post Primary Teachers Association (PPTA), with a motion that was passed unanimously by the Wellington High School PPTA branch. The union’s national leadership, which had paid scant attention to the ACE cuts, was alarmed by the prospect of an “illegal” job action originating from the ranks. Hannah was immediately summoned to the union’s headquarters, where PPTA President Kate Gainsford and five other officials unsuccessfully tried to bully her into scuttling the walkout. Hannah’s intransigence on the issue was endorsed by her fellow teachers at a subsequent branch meeting, where the plan to walk out in collaboration with the school’s ACE staff was reaffirmed.
In the lead-up to the action, press releases were sent out, community groups were notified and placard and banner-making sessions were organized. In the face of the teachers’ determination, the Wellington High School Board of Trustees—their employer—reluctantly sanctioned the protest, effectively removing the threat of legal repercussions.
After walking out, the teachers and their supporters marched to Parliament. Halfway along the route, Gainsford and several PPTA staffers joined in. During the rally, Hannah, who was acting as MC, was approached by a union official with a request that Gainsford be permitted to address the crowd. Hannah replied that the PPTA president was welcome to queue up for the open mic after the scheduled speakers had finished. When Gainsford did speak, her failure to propose any serious resistance to the government’s anti-working class attack was noted by many of the protesters.
The issue of the PPTA News that appeared after the walkout announced that the union would participate in a number of events during the 12 September 2009 National Day of Action against the ACE cuts. The Wellington rally, which again took place in the rain, drew 200 people and featured Gainsford on the speakers list along with a local Labour Member of Parliament, two ACE officials and Hannah. In her remarks, Hannah called for militant action on a national scale: “We need to stand up and say that when the government attacks any section of our colleagues we will fight back.” She also warned against electoralist illusions and pointedly reminded the audience of the Labour Party’s record of imposing austerity:
“The Labour Party has promised to reinstate Adult and Community Education. But we had better remember that when it was the government it underfunded education too, and all other social needs. And it did not reverse the restrictions on workers’ right to strike. Labour is just as opposed to workers’ solidarity as National.
“Don’t put off fighting for our real needs today because it may harm Labour’s [election] chances. No government—National or Labour—will be generous unless we are determined to fight.
“As a socialist I believe that the sort of problems we are experiencing internationally can only be solved through a radical reorganization of the entire economic order. These attacks are part of a more general assault on working people and the poor by those who own and control most of the wealth.”