Monday 27 February 2017

Union hardliners don’t want ASTI to settle anything

Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

ASTI has been in a permanent and heightened state of unrest for a decade. Photo: Arthur Carron
ASTI has been in a permanent and heightened state of unrest for a decade. Photo: Arthur Carron

There is a sense of déjà vu about the current ASTI dispute. The union has made a bit of a habit of marching its members up a hill in search of a new horizon but, once the fog lifts, often they have observed nothing more than the dawn of reality.

Over the past 16 years, ASTI has found itself at odds, not only with government — generally regarded as a badge of honour for unions — but outside the fold of the wider union family, and on a different track from the other teacher unions.

Back in 1999, some ASTI activists, led by then union president Bernadine O’Sullivan, felt they had had enough of the social partnership approach to pay negotiations, which they saw as far too cuddly an arrangement between union leaderships and government.

It was at the height of the dotcom bubble, when those new kids on the block, the techie graduates, were being snapped up on big salaries and Ms O’Sullivan argued that the teachers who had got them to their Leaving Certs were entitled to more than what national wage agreements were delivering.

It culminated in ASTI walking out the Irish Congress of Trades Unions in January 2000 and running a solo pay campaign for a 30pc pay rise. Ultimately, members accepted the terms agreed in the national deals and, by 2006, ASTI was back in the ICTU fold.

ASTI will claim that advances made along the way were thanks to it stirring things up from outside, but other unions give short shrift to any such notion, pointing to the hours they will have put into quiet and steady negotiations. It is accepted that action by ASTI brought about an increase in the hourly rate that was eventually agreed for supervision and substitution, although the principle had been conceded around the table.

The financial crash hit in 2008 and, with it, government deals with public service unions that no one liked, but swallowed with difficulty and an air of resigned acceptance.

ASTI turned its energies to resisting proposed junior cycle changes, most particularly the notion that teachers would assess their own students for a State certificate. The union actually did win that battle, and succeeded in setting a new horizon for teacher limits, but then fell into a familiar pattern, and rejected it anyway.

At that point, a fork opened in what had been a joint campaign between ASTI and the other second-level union, the TUI. TUI members and their students are now happily implementing the changes.

The permanent and heightened state of unrest which ASTI has been in for more than a decade is exactly where a small, but influential, group of hardliners on its executive have directed it and want it to stay: settling nothing.

The hardliners wanted the current two-pronged action — involving both a series of one-day strikes and withdrawal from supervision and substitution — split. They hoped to continue the disruption after Christmas by delaying the supervision and substitution stoppage until then. More moderate voices won the day, presumably in the hope that a short, if very sharp, dispute, will bring about a settlement.

Katherine Donnelly is the Irish Independent Education Editor

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