Who deserves to be paid more, nurses or teachers? Over the past few weeks, as strikes and pay disputes have hit the headlines, I've seen the two increasingly pitted against each other, locked in a largely media-constructed competition to determine which is society's most worthy profession.
Currently, teachers earn more, though neither vocation is exactly lucrative. Funny, isn't it, how we value (or don't) the people whose work forms the backbone of our communities.
Personally, the careers of nursing and teaching never appealed to me. I'm fairly certain I'd be terrible at both, which makes me respect nurses and teachers even more.
Those who care for the sick and educate the next generation are special people. Not only do they work in difficult jobs for low pay, they often go beyond the call of duty.
I'll never forget, for example, the nurse who read story after story in the wee hours of the morning to a scared 4-year-old (me) who'd just had her tonsils taken out and couldn't sleep. Nor the teacher who spent her lunchtimes counselling a lost and anxious 14-year-old (also me).
I have nothing but the utmost gratitude for the teachers and nurses I've encountered over the years, and I'm sure I'm not alone in that.
Gratitude, however, doesn't pay bills and put food on the table, which is why it's time that our collective appreciation translated into fair wages for essential public servants like teachers and nurses. There is no question that both nurses and teachers deserve a pay rise - the only question is how much would be fair and affordable.
I'll be honest, I think that a 14.5 per cent pay rise, which was floated in a background paper for Post Primary Teachers Association (PPTA) delegates recently, is too steep.
While many Kiwis are sympathetic to the plight of teachers to be paid appropriately, asking for a nearly 15 per cent pay increase would be likely to have a negative impact upon public goodwill. Particularly when nurses are paid so much less.
Which begs the question: why are the two professions not on an equitable pay scale? It is difficult to argue that one is more important than the other, yet nurses have consistently been paid less than their teaching counterparts. The New Zealand Nurses' Organisation is seeking pay parity with teachers, and it's hard to comprehend why there remains a pay gap between the two essential public services.
At the very least, the two professions should be brought to parity, and paid wages that adequately take into account the sharp rise in the cost of living, particularly for those living in metropolitan centres like Auckland and Wellington.
The living expenses for teachers and nurses living and working in small provincial towns, for example, are likely to be drastically less than those of their city-dwelling colleagues.
Though collective industrial action offers union members a pathway to better work conditions, one flaw of the model is the lack of room for nuance.
Geography isn't the only factor that should be taken into account in remuneration talks. Arguably, teachers who coach sports teams, direct school productions and run other extra-curricular activities that require them to give up vast swathes of their free time should be valued for their extra contributions.
Another important part of this issue is understaffing. Both the nurses' and teachers' unions have pointed to the overcrowding of schools and hospitals as a major source of stress for their members.
There's no doubt that both the health and education systems are under considerable pressure, and simply paying existing staff more will do little to fix the problem.
When viewed in the context of stretched workforces which have had very little in the way of pay rises for many years, it's unsurprising that we're facing the prospect of strikes.
Simon Bridges' trumpeting about the lack of strikes under the last National Government isn't the great selling point he thinks it is. If the last Government had valued health and education staff appropriately, it's unlikely we'd be at this point now.
Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters has signalled that he and his Cabinet colleagues are ready to work with the respective unions to try to find a solution, which is refreshing. It's time for Government to honour its responsibility as an employer by paying its employees fairly.
At the end of the day, if we value decent free education and healthcare, we're actually all on the same side of this debate.
Though I absolutely understand that we have to balance the books, broadly speaking, I support the plight of our teachers and nurses. I also believe that they need to come to the table with realistic expectations. I think that most Kiwis would like to see our hard-working health and education professionals paid fairly, but when the funding all comes from the same coffers, there is a limit to what will be feasible.
With the lives of our children and sick Kiwis hanging in the balance, here's hoping a reasonable solution can be found with minimal disruption to essential services.