THE leaders of a teachers' union have flown to a conference in Thailand as their members face a crucial re-ballot on the Croke Park deal.
Members of the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) were furious yesterday after general secretary Peter MacMenamin and president Bernie Ruane left for an Education International conference on Equality in Education in Bangkok.
Any delay by the TUI in making a decision on the deal with the Government -- which its members previously rejected -- is likely to stall the introduction of key reforms by other unions.
The education unions generally give their verdict on government deals at the same time.
More than 30,000 primary teachers represented by the INTO have already agreed to work an extra hour a week.
But the second and third level TUI and second-level Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) have to re-ballot their members on proposals on extra hours recently put forward by the Labour Relations Commission (LRC), with voting expected in about three weeks.
Sources said the timing of the week-long trip by the union's most senior members could not be worse and has caused huge irritation among many members.
They said intense consultations should start immediately as members -- who are among the most hardline in their opposition to the agreement -- need guidance.
They said more "questions than answers" were raised at a meeting of the union's executive body last Friday to discuss the LRC proposals.
However, when a motion was tabled to hold an urgent executive meeting on the deal next Friday, they said the president said she had to attend other union work with the general secretary.
One TUI member, who did not want to be named, said the remaining executive could not offer much advice to members in the absence of its key figures as only sub-committees -- which have no decision-making powers -- can meet in its absence.
"This conference is in no way as important as the business that's at home," said one TUI member.
"There is an outcry over this. If you look at the ASTI website, it has given members an interpretation of the agreement, frequently asked questions and interpretations about where the anomalies lie.
"These documents need examination with a fine tooth comb with explanations for members before they can be balloted."
Ahead of his departure yesterday, Mr MacMenamin defended the conference trip.
He said the conference was the first of its kind on educational equality that will be attended by hundreds of other teacher union representatives and hoped it would be of considerable benefit to the union.
"Negotiations on the Public Service Agreement concluded last week and the proposals were brought before the union's executive committee on Friday," said Mr MacMenamin.
"TUI is now in a period of consultation and has invited members and branches to meet, discuss documents and submit any subsequent questions on any of the provisions contained in the proposals."
A TUI spokesman said a commitment was made several months ago to attend the event, originally scheduled for September.