Combined Early Childhood Union of Aotearoa

1982 –

Combined Early Childhood Union of Aotearoa

1982 –

Theme: Employment

Known as:

  • Early Childhood Workers' Union
    1982 – 1990
  • Combined Early Childhood Union of Aotearoa
    1990 –

This essay written by Helen May was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Helen May in 2018.

1982 – 1993

In March 1982, the Early Childhood Workers' Union (ECWU) was registered as an industrial union for 2000 waged early childhood workers. In 1990 it amalgamated with the New Zealand Free Kindergarten Teachers' Association (NZFKTA) to form the Combined Early Childhood Union of Aotearoa (CECUA). By 1993, for over a decade these organisations had been challenging the 'motherly', 'ladylike' image of women who work with young children. They were at the forefront of political activism—on the streets, in the Beehive and on the 'centre floor'—lobbying for quality care and education for children and quality conditions for staff.

The difficulties of setting up a new trade union were compounded by the resistance of many within the childcare community. Sonja Davies had first mooted the idea of a union in 1976, when she was president of the New Zealand Association of Childcare Centres, asking her members, 'Can we as an organisation continue to turn a blind eye to the exploitation of women working in childcare?' [1] The response was wary, even antagonistic. Davies, however, was convinced that until workers' conditions improved, the quality of childcare would remain low, and that only an industrial union could force the changes through. In 1979 she decided to act, although overcoming all the internal and external obstacles was to take another three years.

Davies was supported by Rosslyn Noonan, general secretary of NZFKTA. Both women wanted a unified early childhood union, but this was not possible under the existing industrial legislation. From the beginning, their two organisations worked closely together, sharing office space and expenses.

Registration day for the Early Childhood Workers’ Union, Wellington, March 1982.  From left Kate Marshall, Sonja Davies, Jeannie Truell, Jean Pearson (Simpson), Helen Cook (May), Hillary Watson.

Registration day for the Early Childhood Workers’ Union, Wellington, March 1982.  From left Kate Marshall, Sonja Davies, Jeannie Truell, Jean Pearson (Simpson), Helen Cook (May), Hillary Watson. NZEI Te Riu Roa. New Zealand Educational Institute Collection.

Once established, the new union faced two challenges: gaining credibility with the early childhood community, and surviving on the industrial front. It soon began responding to numerous industrial grievances, with the Federation of Labour giving advice and funding.

The next major battle – establishing a national award – was thwarted first by the delaying tactics of the Employers' Federation. In response, the union adopted a strategy of negotiating agreements with individual employers, but soon found itself in the Arbitration Court, as the Auckland Employers' Association tried to limit the coverage of these voluntary agreements. The union won, but in July 1982 it faced a more serious obstacle – the National government's wage and price freeze, which forbade further negotiations.

Fighting for survival, ECWU won an exemption from Parliament; in June 1984 the first collective award, covering conditions only, was allowed to be negotiated, but with only fifteen employers. In April 1985 ECWU negotiated the first collective wages award with 36 employers, and in 1986 it made the breakthrough to establish national award coverage for all childcare workers. While there were differences between some awards in terms of wages and conditions, ECWU had achieved what childcare workers in other countries had not. The 1984 Labour government's compulsory union membership clause also helped ECWU's fragile viability.

The second half of the decade was a time of consolidation and new campaigns. ECWU began educating its members on biculturalism and Treaty of Waitangi issues. By 1988 the Labour government was restructuring education, and the proposed early childhood reforms would, if implemented, remove past inequities for both children and workers. This was no easy victory, however; with crucial timing, NZFKTA and ECWU organised the Campaign for Quality Early Childhood Education in 1989 to persuade the government that increased funding on a more equitable basis was essential. ECWU also wanted to see new funding for centres tied to improved wages and conditions for childcare workers. This did not happen, although in 1990 ECWU negotiated considerable salary increases for childcare workers.

The amalgamation with NZFKTA in 1990 to form CECUA gave early childhood a strong and united industrial voice. CECUA continued to play an active role in the wider union movement, which was itself undergoing change. But 1991 was a turning point: a new National government not only reviewed early childhood funding, but also introduced the Employment Contracts legislation. This would break the system of national awards for childcare workers which ECWU had worked so hard to win.

Despite the gains made by the union, early childhood wages remained low in comparison with other parts of the education sector and with other skilled jobs (the 1993 rates were $9 per hour for an untrained worker, $16 for a director/supervisor). This reflected the low status attached to the traditional female role of caring for young children. The resilience ECWU and later CECUA demonstrated through adversity and change were crucial for the task of the 1990s: to protect the gains of the 1980s and the state funding and regulation essential to quality early childhood services.

Helen May

1994 – 2018

In 1994 CECUA merged with the New Zealand Educational Institute Te Rui Roa (NZEI Te Riu Roa) to form a united union with primary teachers. Outside the protection of the State Sector Act, staff employed in education and care services (ECS) had lesser recognition and worse conditions. There were separate industrial trajectories for teachers employed by kindergarten associations and teachers, including unqualified staff, in ECS.  The collapse of the national childcare award saw staff employed on individual contracts with minimum conditions. The Consenting Parties Agreement (CPA) coverage had reduced from 270 to 107 employers. There was much ‘rolling over’ of conditions, rather than advancement, during the 1990s. CPA employers joined NZEI Te Riu Roa campaigns for ‘quality’ ECE, with the message that qualified teachers were key to quality. A significant step in 1996 was the recognition of a Diploma of Teaching as the benchmark qualification in wage schedules, with additional levels for higher qualifications.

In 2005 NZEI Te Riu Roa celebrated the survival of the CPA. A Labour-led government had held power since 1999, and had brought in an ECE Strategic Plan, 2002–2012, to achieve 100 percent qualified teachers in ECS.

Pay parity poster

Poster produced for childcare campaign mounted after kindergarten teachers won parity in 2002. NZEI 

When kindergarten teachers achieved pay parity with primary in 2002, NZEI Te Riu Roa  launched a parallel campaign for ECS using the CPA, by then with over 150 employers. In 2004 the Minister of Education, Trevor Mallard, told the sector that, ‘Parity is coming. Relativities are lifting... we are professionalising the early childhood sector’. [2] Salary subsidies for teachers were announced in the 2004 Budget, and NZEI Te Riu Roa tabled its pay parity claim for the CPA negotiations. Nancy Bell, the CEO of Te Tari Puna Ora o Aotearoa–New Zealand Childcare Association, who led the employers’ negotiating team, announced the historic agreement: ‘The employers who have agreed to this historic settlement have done so because they care about the quality of early childhood education.’ [3] But the journey to pay parity did not run smoothly. The Ministry of Education eventually linked the new ECE funding package to the CPA, but employers were required to pay staff only at the first step of each qualification level.

The percentage of staff with qualifications in ECS did increase, but with the change of government in 2008, funding cuts for centres with 100 percent qualified teachers ended any possibility of pay parity. The Prime Minister, John Key, disregarding research on the difference made by qualified staff, declared that, ‘It is a matter of personal belief as to whether a high proportion of all centre staff should be qualified.’ [4] The view that preschool children did not need qualified teachers was clearly still prevalent both inside and outside government. [5] The sector responded that ’These questions would never be raised about adults who teach 5–6 year olds in school’. [6]

Under the National-led government, 2008–2017, there were no funding increases for ECS, and conditions were eroded. This was partly due to the rise of private for-profit provision, from 41 percent of ECS in 1992 to 65 percent in 2014. [7] With the election of a Labour-led government in 2017, NZEI Te Riu Roa galvanised the sector for campaigns around pay parity and pay equity, although unionisation rates were low. [8] In 2017 the Early Childhood Education Collective Agreement (previously CPA) covered 106 employers representing 500 teachers and 200 untrained staff. [9] On the political front, NZEI Te Riu Roa outlined its vision for the 10–year Strategic Plan for Early Learning, arguing for ‘a commitment [by government] to quality teaching and learning through a 100 percent qualified, fairly remunerated and fairly treated workforce’. [10] The outcome was to be determined in early 2019.

Helen May


[1] Sonja Davies, 'Childcare Workers' Union?', Early Childhood Quarterly, Vol. 1 No. 3, 1976–77, p. 18.

[2] NZEI Te Riu Roa, Media Release, 24 May 2004.

[3] NZEI Te Riu Roa, Media Release, 18 October 2004.

[4] NZ Herald, 3 May 2010.

[5] An NZ Herald editorial stated: ‘Plainly National does not regard specialist teaching of pre-school children to be quite as important as Labour did. It is probably right… Did childcare centres ever need to be fully staffed by trained teachers? Or is this a classic case of “qualification inflation”…’ NZ Herald, ’Preschool Budget cuts right move’, 24 May 2010.

[6] Carr, M. and Mitchell, L., Occasional Paper. Qualified teachers in early childhood centres: Do we need them? University of Waikato, Hamilton, 2010, p. 1.

[7] Mitchell, Linda (2015) ‘Shifting directions in ECEC policy in New Zealand: From a child rights to an interventionist approach’, International Journal of Early Years Education, 23(3): 288–302.

[8] Retrieved 10 October 2018.

[9] NZEI Te Riu Roa, ‘Information Service Research Report – 2018-3’, NZEI Te Riu Roa, Wellington, 2018.

[10] Retrieved 10 October 2018.

Unpublished sources

Combined Early Childhood Union of Aotearoa records, 1990–1992, ATL

Early Childhood Workers' Union records, 1982–1990, ATL

Published sources

Clark, Kate, Helen Cook (May), and Jean Pearson, 'Two Models of Unionism in Early Childhood Education: the ECWU and the NZFKTA', in Proceedings, Third Early Childhood Convention 1983, Hamilton, 1983

May (Cook), Helen, 'The Early Childhood Workers' Union: An Analysis of Collective Consciousness and Praxis', New Zealand Journal of Industrial Studies, Vol. 9 No. 1, April 1984

May (Cook), Helen, 'Childcare Workers: (Under)paid as Surrogate Mothers', Women's Studies Journal, Vol. 1 No. 1, August 1984, pp. 26–35

May (Cook), Helen, Mind That Child: Childcare as a Social and Political Issue in New Zealand, BlackBerry Press, Upper Hutt, 1985

May (Cook), Helen, 'Early Childhood Education: A Woman's Sphere in a Man's World', in J. Codd, D. Harker and R. Nash (eds), Political Issues in New Zealand Education, Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 1985, pp.  94–109

May, Helen, Twenty Years of Consenting Parties: The Politics of ‘Working’ and ‘Teaching’ in Childcare 1985–2005, NZEI Te Riu Roa, Wellington, 2005

May, Helen, ‘“Minding”, “Working”, “Teaching”: Childcare in Aotearoa–New Zealand, 1940s–2000s’, Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood,  Vol. 8, No. 2,  2007, 133–143

Nuttall, Joce, 'A Comparison of the Employment Experience of Childcare Workers in Non Profit and Privately-owned Childcare Centres: Some Preliminary Findings', in Proceedings of Fifth Early Childhood Convention, Dunedin, 1991

Roundabout (official publication of ECWU), 1983–1990; Double Take (official publication of CECUA), 1990–1992

Smith, A. and D. Swain, Childcare in New Zealand: People, Programmes and Politics, Allen & Unwin/Port Nicholson Press, Wellington, 1988

Wells, Claire, 'The Impact of Change: Against the Odds', in Proceedings of Fifth Early Childhood Convention, Dunedin, 1991

Community contributions

No comments have been posted about Combined Early Childhood Union of Aotearoa Te Rau o te Aroha o te Kōhanga ki Aotearoa

What do you know?

Can you tell us more about the information on this page? Perhaps you have a related experience you would like to share?

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Comments will be reviewed prior to posting. Not all comments posted. Tell me more...