Worlds of Education

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Teach for the Planet

Photo: Nick Thompson / Flickr
Photo: Nick Thompson / Flickr

Aotearoa New Zealand, education unions and climate change

published 2 November 2021 updated 11 January 2023
written by:

Aotearoa New Zealand is in a privileged position, along with a small number of other countries, of being relatively COVID-free. We do face many challenges that the rest of the world often doesn’t hear about – such as serious pollution of our waterways, extreme levels of poverty and inequality, a housing shortage, melting glaciers, high levels of domestic and sexual violence, and much more.

Indigenous Māori and Pacific people suffer the worst effects of ongoing socio-economic inequality and poor health outcomes, caused by two centuries of colonisation and aggravated by three decades of neoliberal government policy.

That said, compared to some nations we stand in a position of relative privilege when it comes to our ability to respond to the impacts of climate change.

Approximately 20% of workers in Aotearoa are union members. Membership drops to 9% in the private sector but is much higher in the public sector. In the education sector, primary and secondary education is relatively highly unionised while early childhood education is less so. Unions in Aotearoa are still recovering from the neoliberal onslaught of the 1980s and 1990s, when many of the rights of unions to organise and awards/industry standards were stripped away. Under the current government, the likelihood of Fair Pay Agreement legislation being passed offers a glimmer of hope that we can begin to re-establish those standards.

It is in this context that unions in Aotearoa now face the challenge of how to organise and build power with members in their communities to address the challenges of climate change.

“Unlike most industrial campaigns, while we are facing a climate emergency, there is no hard deadline and as such, the issues can sometimes feel quite intangible.”

Addressing climate change as a union

Our union, NZEI Te Riu Roa, is the second largest public sector union in the country, covering early childhood, primary and some secondary educators. In 2016, our members voted at their Annual Conference to adopt a climate change policy. In the ensuing years we began work to track our organisational emissions. Then in 2020, we employed a Community Organiser to support members to grow their activism and leadership on climate change issues.

The key challenge we face is how to build member capacity to become active on climate change. Unlike most industrial campaigns, while we are facing a climate emergency, there is no hard deadline and as such, the issues can sometimes feel quite intangible.

We have started with a focus on understanding local issues related to climate change, documenting existing best practice in climate change education, working with indigenous knowledge systems, lobbying on curriculum issues, and transitioning schools and services to renewable energy.

Overarching all this is a commitment to putting the rights of tamariki Māori – Māori children – first. As a Pacific nation we also have responsibilities to support our Pacific neighbours, who are facing the inundation of their island homes.

“As with any organising effort, we have thought about how this climate work relates to the wider goals and values of the union.”

The concept of a Just Transition for workers is also central to our union and the wider union movement’s focus on climate change. As an education union, we consider our members as ‘second responders’ in a Just Transition. We see first-hand the impacts on communities when industries are closed down and jobs are cut. Many of our members are married or related to workers in those industries. Furthermore, when those jobs go, local schools and services very quickly get shut down too. In addition, as educators we have an important role to play in preparing tamariki for the future.

Organising in Taranaki

We have chosen a number of pilot areas to begin our climate organising work. Chief among these is the Taranaki region, in the west of the North Island. Taranaki is one of the most prominent areas in Aotearoa in terms of its history of colonisation and the peaceful resistance led by tangata whenua (indigenous people) to the process of land theft, language suppression and cultural hegemony that ensued. It is also the centre of much of Aotearoa’s remaining oil and gas exploration and production, as well as dairy.

In 2018, the new Labour-led government announced an end to new permits for offshore oil and gas exploration across the entire country but allowed onshore exploration and production to continue in Taranaki. In tandem with this, the Ardern government committed to a Just Transition process, seeking to engage the Taranaki community in envisioning a Roadmap 2050 and co-designing pathways forward for transition to clean energy jobs.

It is in this context that our first climate network in Taranaki has come together. It is on the one hand a challenging space to organise in, with many of our members having spouses who work in, or have family connections to, oil, gas and dairy. On the other hand, we have a well-organised Area Council (our union is comprised of 14 Area Councils and 24 related Aronui Tomua, their Māori counterpart), led by Māori wahine (women) who are leaders in their own communities. Our member leaders in the area are already immersed in working with tamariki and whānau to (re)connect them to the whenua (land), employing values and knowledge based on Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge systems) and have already engaged in the Roadmap 2050 process. It was NZEI Te Riu Roa who first spoke out about the Roadmap’s lack of engagement with mana whenua (local tribal authorities).

Although the challenge is different, we have followed the same organising protocol as if it were industrial organising. In other words, we have started by locating a group of interested people and determining what the key issues are for them in relation to climate. And, as with any organising effort, we have thought about how this climate work relates to the wider goals and values of the union. We have started small and will build from there, front of mind being how to motivate and interest NZEI Te Riu Roa members and allies.

Starting this work in 2019, the Taranaki Area Council planned small hui forums to begin engaging key and interested members. In 2021, we found a climate convenor. This is a new position that will be accountable to and report to the Taranaki Area Council. Tapping into a key value for the union – that of manaakitanga, or care for each other – one of the issues that Kate, the new Taranaki climate convenor, has already identified and that is particularly resonant for Taranaki is that often those educators who are already locally active on climate feel quite isolated; working as they do within communities that are strongly dependent on oil, gas and dairy. A key role of the new network will therefore be to provide support.

“As educators, our members can be – and already are – an incredible power for good in their communities when it comes to climate change.”

On the other hand, a strong network of ‘Enviroschools’ – schools that have already chosen to strive for sustainability - exists that Kate can tap into. Coming back to the role of manaakitanga, however, it will also be important that a team is grown around Kate herself.

The next step we have planned is to hold a meeting in the first half of the new school term, working in with the usual schedules of staff meeting days at schools, services and kura kaupapa (full immersion Māori schools). The union has an active national Climate Action for Educators Facebook page against which we have been able to data-match many local members. With this information on hand, and drawing on existing local contacts, the local union office and Area Council has committed to provide organising, leadership and financial support for Kate’s work and will distribute fliers and information through its networks.

One of the things we have discussed is the importance of being solutions focused – focusing on the successes as well as the challenges. Children and educators alike often feel a high level of anxiety about climate and environmental issues; while not minimising the enormity and severity of these concerns, it is important to frame the issues and actions in terms of what can be done. So there will be a focus on sharing what works, and communicating successes.

In terms of Just Transitions, the group will also keep a watching brief on the Roadmap 2050 process. Educators and education will play a pivotal role in shaping how we respond to the challenges of the future, and that will be their point of entry into the Just Transition discussion.

Our biggest learning so far?

One of the biggest takeaways we have had so far is how important it is – as always – to find the right person to step into the role of convening our local climate work. Kate came with a dual passion for climate and education mahi (work), and experience in both fields. She is connected into her local community, and while she is pākehā (non-Māori), has a solid grounding in Te Ao Māori (the world of Māori). Importantly, she did not already hold other union officeholder roles. But above all else, she has the motivation and creativity to want to do this work. Every area will have its own way of working – that is already very apparent. We look forward to seeing how Taranaki can act as one exemplar for our union climate work.

Another challenge will be ensuring that the climate networks we set up around the country can be self-organising and sustainable, and not rely on the local union organiser/s and Community Organiser to drive them.

Progress is being made to build climate networks elsewhere in the country, including on the East Coast of the North Island, the West Coast of the South Island (which has a proud tradition both of unionism and coal mining), and in our largest city by far – Auckland. As a C40 city, Auckland, which has one third of the country’s population, is part of a network of the world’s megacities committed to collaborating, sharing knowledge and driving meaningful, measurable and sustainable action on climate change – including in the education space.

The impacts of climate change are now very visible. As educators we are going to need to be involved in serious conversations about emissions reduction, Just Transitions, climate adaptation, and more. I am confident however that as educators, our members can be – and already are – an incredible power for good in their communities when it comes to climate change. I look forward to working alongside them to tackle those challenges.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.