Any strike by a group of workers is a battle for sympathy from the wider public. That's the struggle primary and intermediate school teachers are in right now.

How much sympathy they have will play a significant part in the success, or otherwise, of their negotiations with the Government.

Minister of Education Chris Hipkins knows public sympathy is a critical battleground, which is why he's doing his best to discredit the teachers.

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This included making an "improved" offer of slightly more pay, limited to senior teachers, just days before rolling strikes commenced.

The intention was to make the teachers look unreasonable in going ahead with their strike plans. Hipkins knew, of course, that the union representing primary and intermediate teachers wouldn't call off the strikes at short notice, not for an offer that didn't substantially address their concerns.

His comment that "a $9500 pay rise is a pay rise that many other New Zealanders would certainly appreciate" was likewise designed to dent public sympathy. Painting striking workers as greedy is the oldest trick an employer can pull.

Hipkins was calculating we'd see a headline without recognising that the $9500 pay increase would be staggered over three years, and only apply to the most senior teachers.

The Government is only willing to increase the pay of new teachers by $1400 this year, with similar increases over the following two years, taking the starting salary of a primary school teacher to just over $50,000 in 2020. Hardly a figure that's going to see a rush of people signing up to the profession.

To put the Government's pay offer into perspective, people on minimum wage will be receiving $8840 more by 2021 (to $41,600 annually).

The minister is being disingenuous also in trying to make the strike action all about pay, when it's not.

It's that the Government isn't moving on reducing class sizes and allowing teachers more non-contact hours to prepare that are major sticking points in negotiations.

But "greedy teachers" is a better narrative for the Government than teachers who want to improve the learning experience of students.

Despite the minister's attempts to undermine public sympathy, there's plenty still out there for the teachers.


Most people understand that teaching these days is a tough job, one that's become more demanding over the past 20 years.

The teachers' wishes, in particular for lower class sizes, resonates with parents. We want this too.

And everybody knows the cost of living, particularly for housing, has skyrocketed. Even as taxpayers we can appreciate the teachers' pay demands are not unreasonable.

How determined Chris Hipkins, and the real powers in the Government behind him, are to block the demands of teachers will be fascinating to watch.

More attempts by the minister to discredit teachers might only work to strengthen their resolve.

I'm predicting the Government will be forced to concede further ground or face more strike action after this week.

Teachers look united, and in the sympathy stakes I think they're doing pretty well.

■ Vaughan Gunson is a writer and poet interested in social justice and big issues facing the planet.