Waking up the West Coast
One of PPTA’s most geographically spread regions has a full complement of branch chairs for the first time in 14 years.
West Coast regional chair Vanessa Pringle said there had been branch contacts in West Coast schools, but this is the first time the region has had this level of commitment and connectivity in the time she has been in the role.
And commitment is the operative word. The West Coast region covers a huge area and, while meetings are spread throughout the region, members travelling from places like South Westland or Karamea can be travelling three to four hours each way to attend.
“I do understand the difficulties – it’s a big commitment for them to get to a regional meeting, particularly if they are three hours’ drive away. If the meeting is after school it could be midnight by the time they get home.” Vanessa said. The region always factored in time to eat as well, she said. “I believe we need to take care of our people. I think to feed and water them is the least we can do.”
The final school to join the regional branch chair team was Karamea Area School, and being an area school this was actually a pretty big deal, Vanessa said. “It’s particularly important for area schools where there might only be one or two PPTA members, it can get quite lonely. It can also be tough if you are in an area school with a non-union principal, she said. “We need to support these members and show solidarity with them.”
Solidarity through strike action
Vanessa believes it was the strike action during the Secondary Teacher Collective Agreement negotiations last year that activated the region and that those gains were cemented by the branch based PUMs held shortly after to address issues around the teaching council.
“It fired people up in terms of working together, the strike and then having the PUMs about the teaching council straight after that. It was a good way of establishing and reinforcing networks,” she said.
The strike brought the region together, Vanessa said. “For the first time in 10 years West Coasters really stepped up. We often feel very isolated here – that actions don’t really apply to us. The MPs are in Wellington so there’s no point standing outside their buildings, but this time everyone was out in the main street. NZEI was out with us, we had community support. The strike certainly reenergised them” she said.
Vanessa believes the region reactivating goes back even further, to the joint PUMs with NZEI that defeated bulk funding. “We built those connections then and are seen to be a powerful force in the region,” she said.
Running branch based PUMs with confidence
The way the branch based teaching council PUMs were run also gave branch chairs in the region confidence, Vanessa said.
They had the offer of support from her as regional chair as well as PPTA staff and executive members, but many felt confident with the material sent out to them by national office.
“All the information sent out by PPTA, the speeches, powerpoints and arguments made really clear, made it easy for them. It was clear what people needed to do as branch and regional chairs and if people had any questions staff were available to give it more context,” she said.
“I made sure the chairs knew that if they needed support they could contact me. They could call up and say ‘it’s the middle of the meeting and it’s all gone to hell’ and I would be available for them. I had the support of my principal to be able to do that if I needed to, but in the end they were all good.”
Connecting during lockdown
The West Coast region has found ways to keep in touch during the Covid-19 lockdown, with their last regional meeting held online through Google Meet. It was a good way to get together without the travel, but Vanessa still feels face to face is best.
She also felt the region had a good digital connection with the union during lockdown, particularly through Bring out the Best member only Facebook page. “You know that it is the PPTA you are talking with, that the president, general secretary and staff are all on there. If people comment they know they are both talking to PPTA and that they are the PPTA,” she said.
“Knowing that members are the PPTA and have the power to control the direction the association travels in is really important. The teaching council says it wants to be the independent voice of teachers, but it can’t be. The PPTA is its members and is accountable to us in a way the teaching council will never be,” she said.