George Orwell: In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.
In recent times the reputation of the ASTI has fallen off a cliff. Repeatedly our decisions have been based on emotion not on the facts available to us and on a desire to deliberately disrupt, not engage in negotiation. The ASTI has moved from a hard won position of authority and defence of Irish education to a laughing stock.
There is a pressing need for a modern, radical teacher trade unionism, more energetic and progressive than either the ‘toys out of the pram’ reactive, conservative union we have become or an old fashioned ‘just do pay and conditions’ union. Where is it? – this is what is at the heart of the ASTI’s ongoing crisis.
- DYSFUNCTIONAL LEADERSHIP
A trade union has to exercise leadership before, during and after a campaign of any sort. It traditionally uses its power by both leading and at the same time following the members of the union. The power to lead is not enough, exercising that power and continuing to lead are also essential. Members accept or reject the ideas, values and leadership offered not because they have been tricked or indoctrinated, but because they have placed their hope and their trust in decision makers. When those members, those teachers, are separated, deliberately in some instances, from those decision makers, we find ourselves in a union that can claim thousands of members, but, in reality, the overwhelming majority of them have no knowledge of, interest in or accurate information on the decision making process. (The dearth of elections to Standing Committee, the inactivity of members and the difference between an active and inactive member of the ASTI will be the subject of a future post.)
Spoonfeeding members the bald ‘vote yes’ or ‘vote no’ without the whole picture denies them the opportunity to find out the truth about what is going on for themselves.
- DISENGAGED FROM MEMBERS, DISENGAGED FROM EDUCATION
In a functioning, democratic organisation, everything from a state to a workplace, the use of power is readjusted and re-negotiated all the time. The type of leadership we have now instead tries to secure the consent of ‘the membership’ through their inaction, their emotion or their fear. This kind of leadership constructs a consensus built on sand: a contract between leader and led built on deceit and incomplete information. That is what we have now. (I dealt with this in a previous post about the ballot on Croke Park Hours.) Making decisions based on emotion, as we did on Croke Park hours, without all the consequences in the open undermines a union in the eyes of its members because it allows people to absolve themselves of blame when events take a turn for the worst.
So this leadership has persuaded members to accept its bona fides on strategy (though this ‘strategy’ seems unachievable, if not invisible, to many of us). This strategy seems to assume that one can promise as much as one wants without any clear idea of what that is, or any acceptance of the compromises ahead. (This is what scuppered the acceptance of the outcome of the Junior Cycle: by not having a clear idea of what we wanted, it became very easy to say what we got wasn’t enough.) So now, members have been induced into moving outside a pay and conditions agreement by using the emotive decision on Croke Park hours. We now have leadership without consequences.
The current culture of disengagement needs to be challenged because unless it is dismantled, it is facilitating decision making that has worsened the conditions, and pay, of every member of the ASTI. It has allowed the union to exit a series of pay agreements and put the work of the ASTI as a trade union in jeopardy, sending us down a political blind alley. This lack of engagement extends beyond our own members though, it is a feature of the recent leaders to be distrustful and dismissive of external education parties of all descriptions. The way to ensure isolation is to aggravate and worsen relations with other unions, education bodies, officials and of course the public. It started with the NCCA. A body designed to advise, engage and research in education has become the enemy because of Junior Cycle reform. My attitude to the NCCA and Junior Cycle is easy to find elsewhere on this blog, but I have long advocated making common cause with that body in order to take on the Department of Education. That hasn’t happened at isn’t likely to. This isolationism extends to other unions. Despite the common perception that paid officials are the ones who oppose teacher unity, it is this group of pretend trade unionist who ‘wouldn’t trust the INTO as far as I’d throw them’, or ‘expect nothing better from the TUI, always let us down’. It even extends to turning down requests for support from other non-teaching unions who have members employed in education. And of course we have no sympathy in the DES. Personal relationships matter, but when the prevailing attitude is that any talk is collaboration, not having the back channel contacts means no movement, no solutions, no friends.
- TRUTHINESS AND DISSENT
We need to explain ourselves truthfully, not with the truthiness that seems to expect action without consequences: it is common sense, it is said, that if ‘they’ attack us we should react. Except there was no attack. If you were paying rent to landlord and were required to keep the flat clean and presentable, a job you resent but know your accommodation depends upon, you would probably, begrudgingly, do it. If you decided to stop doing it, even if your rent was up to date, your landlord would be able to show you your contract, point to the rubbish piling up, and say I can’t renew your tenancy. Is the landlord attacking you? There’s a common sense answer here of course, and it isn’t picketing the entrance to the property.
The way those who lead the ASTI now define the outward facing view of the ASTI is accepted by a core of (loud) members as common sense, the only ‘sensible’ way of seeing the issue at hand. In that climate discussion is rubberstamping, some meetings would remind a history teacher of those old newsreels of the Stalinist Politburo, and any one or group who present an alternative view is marginalised, as I well know. An attitude has developed of “tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato” (everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State) where to criticise or question decisions is seen to be traitorous. I have had the experience of being admonished for questioning decisions at Standing Committee, for asking questions at CEC, for for even writing on this blog about how flawed the most recent ballot was. (Details on request.)
What I won’t do here, or anywhere is say one thing to your face, or on this blog, and another when a door closes behind me and a decision has to be made. It has always amazed me how people vote against something on a Friday at Standing Committee and in favour of the same proposal on Saturday at CEC. (This happened on my proposal for a ballot for strike action on Junior Cycle.) The only answer to the question of why this happens is obvious: populism. The unholy alliance of older conservatives with younger populists has turned the ASTI away pragmatic action. It has led to the policy of isolation led from the top. How does this breed a motivated, engaged membership? How is the ASTI reaching out to teachers? Beyond the 4 or 5% of ‘active members’ who knows what is going on?
- CONSERVATISM , POPULISM
So call it what is, conservatism: the attitude that the past is where we belong. That what we have we hold, no change, no modernisation, no engagement. An unholy alliance of older Ian Paisley types whose ‘no, no,no’ attitude and those who conceive of the ASTI as a vehicle for confrontation when it should be a vehicle for the betterment of Irish education and those who deliver it.
Teachers by nature are not this kind of conservative, they move all the time, they bridge the divide between the knowledge they have and their students all the time. They change, upgrade, improve and plan ahead all the time, but this leadership doesn’t want any of that. The leadership has set itself against CPD for Junior Cycle (let’s face it we won that battle on almost everything), they have set themselves against planning, against supervising their students, they have set the ASTI against some of the core activities teachers do. And they have done this out of spite. Some have even suggested it is a battle to bring down the government! There is also the great irony of all this coming from people who display the essence of conservatism while claiming to be socialists.
A union, any organisation, has be have ideas and an ideology, those ideas create the climate for positioning and movement and also prevent the organisation from straying too far from its ideals. In both my failed election campaigns (the ones where I was being told repeatedly that I was too young in my mid forties to be elected Vice-President) I called for a written statement of policies and positions to be published by the ASTI. That will not happen because having ideas that are porous, flimsy and easy to recast is easier than having things you might have to stand by: marshmallow is easier to digest than the stuff that’s actually good for you. (Rule 4 outlines the objects of the Association, click the link and see if you think we’re fulfilling even half the things our forebears wanted us to be concerned with.)
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
Dédiabolisation is a word coined in French for the process by which a group removes from its number those members or those ideas that have caused the group to be vilified. The time has come for dédiabolisation in the ASTI. We have prioritised acquisition over ideas, over education itself. That is why we now need, the repositioning of the ASTI as an outward facing, open organisation of professionals, interested in education, intent on the best conditions and pay for members, prioritising those worst off, in the ways its members approve most of. That’s what teachers do.
Orwell: All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.
This is the first of three posts about the ASTI today.
CEC member 2003-16
Standing Committee 2011-16
ASTI member since 1993
Responses/comments welcome as always