Netherlands: Successful fight to close pay gap between primary and secondary teachers
Through a continuous movement of industrial action embracing individual teachers’ demands, the Algemene Onderwijsbond (AOb) has been able to win public support and obtain greater investment in public education and teachers from the new government. This led to a significant reduction of the pay gap between primary and secondary teachers.
“The pay gap between primary and secondary education was not really on the union agenda. A pay raise was, yes, but not the pay gap,” according to AOb Vice-President Jelmer Evers.
He explained that, in 2017, three Dutch male primary teachers wrote a paid article in a newspaper demanding the end of the pay gap between primary and secondary teachers.
They came together from a Facebook group – Primary educators in action – and in no time they had 50,000 members, it started snowballing from there, Evers said. They had demands for their employers, but also the union. “Many of these teachers were union members. The Facebook group was a catalyst for members, got lots of participation. We had to embrace it,” he noted.
“The pay gap was absurd because we are all qualified in the same way – primary and secondary teachers, with Bachelor degrees for primary and lower secondary teachers, and Master’s degrees for upper secondary teachers. There are difference in our jobs in the ways we work, but in essence, in terms of difficulties, it is similar,” he went on to say.
AOb President Tamar Van Gelder also recalled that the union organised strikes focusing on the issue of the pay gap. “From the start we said: we have to agree with them. We worked in collaboration with other unions, but also with the employers, against the government. That’s why our new government could not overlook this problem.”
She indicated that the government that came in power in January 2022 in The Netherlands invested over 900 million, and with earlier investment, a total of 1.6 billion euros were invested in education over the last five years.
“There were some huge increases for teachers, especially if you take into account what was invested over three years, and then looking back at where we started from with the first investment. It could be a 10-15% increase for some teachers, 2-3% for others. We looked at the salary scales and had to align them, some were already quite aligned, but for others it took a huge investment.”
Still more gain to be achieved towards quality education
For Van Gelder, “after five years of strikes we had a little bit of success; but it is a little bitter, because, while we had a lot of investment, we still have a teacher shortage. We need 10,000 more teachers in primary schools, 15,000 in secondary schools, 1,000 in vocational education and training. It is like we have a house with a sound basement now, but it is still a house with leakages. The pandemic gave a basis to talk with the Education Minister again and tackle the issue of the teacher shortage.”
Evers added that there is a political issue: “We want to move away from the decentralised private system in education. We want to rebuild public institutions. It is a whole system approach.”
Advice for education unions
On sharing positive experiences and advice for colleagues in Europe and the world over, Van Gelder underlined: “Don’t be scared of people outside of your union who see things and make it public. Don’t be scared, listen, embrace and facilitate. We need to be open and transparent and member-driven. It also has to do with union renewal.”
Evers insisted that unions should be more engaged in networks, in social media. “There is willingness if the topic is right and a will for people to show solidarity and go into action. We had five years of strikes and consolidated action, a collective effort from individuals and organisations. It worked, so we must tap in into these kinds of things. How quickly the movement formed and organised must also be carefully examined. Social media is a driver, a catalyst. You need to combine it with new ways of organising within your own structures. The movement for equal pay really engaged teachers and education support personnel, creating a closer relationship with the union.”
He went on to stress that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government saw how important education is. “Employers and governments saw how teachers and their unions struggled to ensure children get education. They acknowledged it. There was respect for how we handled the situation. The base to talk to each other therefore improved.”
The awareness of the public itself also improved, he said. “You could see that online education was good and valuable during a pandemic, in case of a disaster, but everybody also noticed that this is not the real thing. There is more awareness about the importance of face-to-face education, qualified teachers, and the difficulties of teaching. That is what parents experienced. So we benefited from the pandemic, we got some credit during the pandemic.”
Van Gelder, however, warned against employers or employers’ organisations who now say, “The pandemic was a blessing, useful to see what we can do or not”. Now that the pandemic is almost over, they are saying digitalisation is the future again, she deplored.
On a gender equality perspective, she recalled that in primary education, mostly women’s work, and that “we have to make the profession attractive to all genders”.
Evers also recalled that, during the strikes, teachers had various conversations around key questions such as: How do we implement these demands or propositions from the unions? How does it work? What would that look like?
“Those are conversations we need to have,” he asserted. “Then you build up a real, deeper relationship with your members, and with teachers. So, the national conversation should be linked to the local conversations. This is the next step that we want to take.”
Van Gelder insisted: “Those striking members are not staying. After the strike they say ’The pay is here’ and leave, and you want to build up a collective. You can mobilise through social media, but the real conversation is together, in a group.”
Creating a new image for the union
Evers added that teachers need to create a new image for their union. “It is not just saying ‘No’ but also clearly stating what we are for. It is important as after 30 years of neoliberalism, unions are regarded as being old fashioned, rusty. We need to counter that narrative.”
Van Gelder was adamant that “everything is done in cooperation, so you want a clear message for yourself. Our challenge is not to say: ‘we want, we have workload, we need more money, investment’, but we have to show how professionally we work.”