News Analysis

Saturday 20 September 2014

Emer O'Kelly: Pampered teachers and spoiled ESB workers disgrace legacy of lockout

In a democracy, the draconian way – such as banning strikes – can sometimes be the moral way

Emer O'Kelly

Published 08/12/2013 | 02:30

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September 1913 : Crowds in Dublin's O'Connell street attending a trades union meeting
September 1913 : Crowds in Dublin's O'Connell street attending a trades union meeting

IT WAS interesting to hear Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn putting his head on the block in the Dail last week. He was taking question time on behalf of the Taoiseach, and offered more than a gleam of hope that the situation in the ESB concerning the workers' defined benefit/defined contribution outrage/spoiled tiff might be resolved before the D-day of December 16, when we are all dreading being plunged into freezing darkness for long hours each day.

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Offering us hope might not seem like putting his head on the block, but then Quinn won't carry the can for the ESB strike if his measured optimism about resolution of the dispute turns out to have been unfounded. That will fall to his colleague Pat Rabbitte, the Minister for Energy. And it was Quinn's job to kick for touch on the day in question, possibly luckily for the Government, since Rabbitte has an arrogance almost guaranteed to exacerbate any delicate situation.

But on the same day, while wearing his own hat, and while members of the Asti (the secondary teachers' union) were in the midst of a ballot (their third) on the Haddington Road Agreement, Minister Quinn moved to stir the pot to the depths of the last lentil in dealing with its members. Their dispute could be described as every bit as esoteric as that of their fellow trades unionists in the ESB.

Asti originally balloted to turn down the terms of the Haddington Road Agreement. The agreement was accepted by the other teachers' unions. The Government went back to the table with Asti, and made concessions. That can't exactly have been popular with TUI and INTO members, but they swallowed it. Another Asti ballot. Another turndown. No Haddington Road ... not at any cost.

But the revised terms, which Asti members had just turned down, included overtime payment (if you work in the private sector, you may have forgotten the concept of overtime: you'll be more accustomed to three-day weeks, if you're lucky enough to have a job in the first place) for supervisory and substitution duties. (That means making sure that the little sweethearts don't wreck the joint at lunchtime, or standing in for a sick colleague.)

So the renegotiation, instigated by the rejection by Asti of the original terms of the agreement, now gave concessions to all teaching unions, including TUI and INTO, whose members had accepted the original terms. And guess what? The Asti members suddenly realised that being outside the agreement meant that they didn't qualify for those overtime payments.

So despite presumably having learned the rudiments of classical logic during their university years, they've been balloting again on strike action from the January term unless they get the payments they've already balloted to reject. Fiercely adult, isn't it?

And then along comes Ruairi, swinging his schoolbag like a good 'un, as I've said before in another situation. On the same day that he was hopeful about the ESB situation in the Dail, he issued a statement that the Cabinet had agreed that no more messing would be taken from Asti. From January 17, Asti members who refuse to do the duties specified for the special payments (they haven't been doing the duties for quite a while, but have still been paid) will no longer receive the payments. And the ballot currently under way among the Asti members is urging them to reject these draconian, rightwing, even inhuman requirements.

And if these teachers follow their union's advice and reject the ballot, two-thirds of second-level schools will be closed down, not for academic reasons, but because there's no one to patrol the lunchroom. And Quinn even had the impertinence to point out that some teachers may actually be fired as a result. Shock! Horror! A teacher in an Irish school being fired ... and only for gross public irresponsibility.

One almost expected Quinn to have sprouted horns as he stood in the Dail and tried to give us hope on the ESB dispute.

Obviously, thought the public service union activists, there is no understanding at government level, and certainly not from the Minister for Education, of the reality of human suffering. So why was the same minister offering us hope on the threatened ESB strike? Did he not understand that ESB workers, on an average wage of €60,000 a year, and with a guaranteed pension at the end of it (which is performing in these hard financial times far better than most other pension funds), are grovelling in the mire of destitution, their children wailing piteously at their mothers' empty breasts?

Did he not understand that Brendan Ogle, the man at the helm of the ESB group of unions, is a heroic figure frequently to be seen under cover of darkness scavenging rejects from the bins behind capitalist bakeries and delivering them at great personal risk to the houses of the starving and miserable?

No, he'd probably heard, as the rest of us had, what the heroic Ogle had said at a meeting of an extremist republican (ie nationalist) group. He said that the workers he represented, but whom he now claims publicly to be downtrodden and in dangerous financial jeopardy, were "spoiled". In the climate in which most of us live, it's the truest word he ever uttered.

When people are driven by ideology, human beings matter not at all to them. Ogle, speaking among friends and co-believers, described the men and women he is extremely well paid to represent as "spoiled". Publicly, he is representing them as victims of exploitation.

When people are driven by ideology, individuals are their pawns. Truth, in the old cliche, is the first casualty. And when ideology and greed take over, the ideologues triumph, because they have divided decent people and made them indifferent to their fellow human beings and their rights.

Strikes, in their essence, are fuelled by pickets. A hundred years ago, in dozens of countries, men and women, (some of them with babies at their breasts), were clubbed and maimed, some to death, to establish the right to strike for a living wage.

The Asti members, and the members of the ESB group of unions, would do well to reflect on that in this centenary year of the 1913 lockout, and not disgrace that solemn right. They might also reflect that in a democracy, the draconian way can sometimes be the moral way: such as passing laws which forbid workers in essential services (and that includes education) to strike. It would be a sad day in a country which claims to believe in the dignity of the individual. But it might become necessary.

Sunday Independent

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