Thursday 19 October 2017

Peace for now, but trouble looms in teachers' unions

Noel Buckley at the ASTI conference Photo: Don MacMonagle
Noel Buckley at the ASTI conference Photo: Don MacMonagle
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

The new school year will get off to a peaceful start after the secondary teachers' union ASTI finally called a halt to two long-running battles.

A well-executed fightback by moderates, and young teachers who were bearing the brunt of the union's "no surrender" strategy, won the day against the hard-liners at a special convention of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) on Saturday.

Had it gone the other way, about 10,000 ASTI members would be kissing goodbye to increments that were worth an average of €1,200 to each individual teacher this year, effectively gifting the Government about €12m - and perhaps the same again next year.

ASTI members were also losing out on a raft of other pay-restoration measures, arising from their repudiation of the Lansdowne Road Agreement (LRA).

What proved even more crucial in the fightback was the sacrifice the union's policy demanded of newly-qualified teachers who, as a result of the ASTI not signing up for the LRA, would have to wait four years for a permanent contract, rather than two.

As the school year drew to a close, hundreds, and possibly more, young ASTI members could see the prospect of permanency drifting away and werer unsure of when it would appear again. There is now time for contracts to be awarded before the end of June.

For many, the uncertainty about security of tenure made nonsense of the leadership claims the ongoing campaign was about ensuring equality for young teachers.

Saturday's vote brought the curtain down on a series of disruptive action by the ASTI, sparked by proposals for junior cycle reform in 2012 and which rolled into a campaign against the LRA in 2015.

There were strike days, a brief refusal to do supervision and substitution, disruption to essential parent-teacher and school planning meetings and non-co-operation with junior cycle reforms, directly affecting about 36,000 pupils sitting exams this year.

About 500 second-level schools were affected.

Pupils suffered, schools suffered, members suffered, and the union itself suffered.

At end of last week, the tally of ASTI members who resigned this year had grown to about 1,200, with others in the pipeline. Many more were ready to go, had the convention gone a different way.

Ultimately, the convention voted a comfortable 2-1 to suspend action, but it was a hard-fought victory for those supporting the motion, with one source describing Saturday's debate as "hot and heavy".

Through their two campaigns, significant concessions to teachers - both in relation to pay equality and the junior cycle reforms, and for which the ASTI could have claimed certain credit - were met with rebuffs by a leadership that seemed more intent on permanent revolution.

Hard-liners started losing control of policy at the ASTI annual conference at Easter, where growing frustration about the union's strategy was voiced.

One long-standing member, Fintan O'Mahony, described the ASTI as a "hermit kingdom" and the "North Korea of the trade union movement".

Another long-standing activist and a member of ASTI executive committee Noel Buckley, pictured, read the mood in the hall and grabbed the moment.

Well-versed in union rules and procedures, he set in train a series of actions that ultimately forced the union leadership to call Saturday's special convention. Mr Buckley, a teacher at Presentation Secondary School, Clonmel, Co Tipperary, did not succeed at the conference, but the seeds were sown. In the weeks afterwards, he and others tapped into a grassroots groundswell to get them off the hook, and about 1,600 names were gathered demanding the convention.

Hard-liners, who thought they had despatched the moderates at conference, were helpless to prevent the convention, but put forward four amendments for debate on Saturday. Had any been carried, it would have subverted the main motion.

So, all 365 delegates were sharply focused, one way or another: 240 voted in favour, 121 against, and only four abstentions.

While the school year will get off to a peaceful start, already there are signs of trouble down the line, with the other two teachers' unions, the TUI and the INTO, recommending rejection of the LRA successor.

Irish Independent

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