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Teachers threaten strike over Covid safety concerns after ASTI vote


(stock photo)

(stock photo)

(stock photo)

Members of the secondary teachers’ union, ASTI, have voted for industrial action, up to strike, if a range of Covid-related safety issues are not addressed immediately.

These include the need for a comprehensive testing programme, rapid testing and turnaround, and appropriate resources for schools to ensure continuation of learning where there are school closures/self-isolation.

There is no immediate threat of action, but the result does give the union a powerful weapon.

The 17,500 ASTI members were asked to consider whether they were prepared to take industrial action over a range of issues and to vote on each of them individually. They supported industrial action in most cases.

There were four ballot papers - with nine items on one - covering Covid-related prevention and protection measures, work practices, an end to two-tier pay and permanent jobs for teachers returning to the system.

In one ballot, the ASTI set this Friday, October 30, as the deadline for concession of its Covid-related demands, equal pay and permanent jobs, before considering its next move.

The full list of nine items in this paper was:

  • Physical distancing of two metres in every classroom.
  • Free provision of N95 masks to all students and teachers.
  • Redefinition of a close contact as any person who has spent more than 15 minutes in a classroom with a positive Covid-19 case.
  • Serial testing programme for schools.
  • Guaranteed test turnaround times of 24 hours.
  • Equal pay for post-2010 teachers.
  • Guaranteed offer of a permanent contract, on full hours, for any teacher who returns to the system, either from Ireland or abroad.
  • Provision for any teacher in the high-risk category to either teach from home or have guaranteed reasonable accommodations made in school.
  • Free provision of laptops, procured centrally rather than by means of grants to schools, for students and teachers to ensure that learning can continue as much as possible if classes are required to self-isolate, or schools required to close due to Covid-19.

The N95 masks are regarded as offering a high degree of protection.

A majority of members supported action in the case of six of these nine demands - but not in relation to the N95 masks, a requirement for physical distancing of two metres in every classroom or permanent contracts for returned teachers.

Two other ballot papers dealt with what the union regards as unilateral changes in work practices in some schools , including a trend to from 40-minute to one-hour classes.

If supported, the Standing Committee would issue directives to members on circumstances in which they could co-operate .

The fourth ballot paper also dealt with the equal pay and is a re-run of one that was interrupted in March due to school closures. It would involve industrial action on the pay issue to be taken in conjunction with one or both of the other teacher unions.

There is ongoing engagement with all the teacher unions about strengthening protection for school communities ahead of next week’s re-opening, but commitments made to date fall short of the ASTI list.

On Covid, ASTI President Ann Piggott said their members were clearly stating that they wanted schools to remain open for students during this pandemic.

But they were “demanding that the Government step up and provide 24-hour test turnaround, a redefinition of close contacts for school settings, a comprehensive testing programme, and appropriate arrangements for teachers categorised as ‘high risk’. We must be supported in sustaining education for our children and young people.”

She said they had also decided that they would not accept unilateral decisions by some schools to implement changes to working conditions without any consultation with teaching staff.

“Teachers are unwavering in their commitment to providing a quality education and to supporting their students at this stressful and uncertain time. However, the ASTI will not countenance exploitative attempts to introduce unnecessary work changes without consensus which have a further negative impact on teachers’ work and workload. This smacks of crisis opportunism.”

On the separate ballot on equal pay, on which ASTI members voted to take industrial action for equal pay for equal work, to be taken in conjunction with one or both of the other teacher unions, Ms Piggott said they were “absolutely committed to achieving equal pay for teachers who entered the profession from 2010. We will not stop until this abhorrent inequity is removed.”

Responding the support for action, up to strike, on Covid-related issues, ASTI general secretary Kieran Christie said “there will be no knee jerk reaction” .

The said the outcomes of the ballots would be considered formally in coming days.

While October 30 was the deadline the ASTI set for concession of most of their demands, Mr Christie said industrial action was “much a last resort”.

He said if they found themselves “in circumstances where we were dealing with situations that were intractable and couldn’t make any progress, then we would have it there. We have the mandate now, if it is necessary.”

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