Tuesday April 16, 2013. Finally, a good day to be an Irish Trade Unionist. Even better, a good day to be a member of a teachers union. It was fitting that the message that cutting wages reduces spending power and weakens the economy came from workers. That the coalition find it hard to understand why public servants found ‘Croke Park 2’ difficult to stomach is itself hard to understand.
We are told that people in private sector employment have taken pain too, that if they were asked to vote on further cuts they also would have said no. Why weren’t they asked? Because many of them aren’t in trade unions, the power of our No vote comes from the power of our unions.
And the three teacher unions, the ASTI, the INTO and the TUI, find themselves in a position they’ve not been in for a generation, they have huge goodwill among members, it is rare for all teachers, or indeed the huge majority in my own union the ASTI to be on the same page. The task for unions leaders now is to bring the members with us, to do that delicate job of leading and following at the same time.
I’ve said before that teachers have felt for a generation that they have no real say in shaping their work lives but there is a solidarity within schools now, and the teacher unions are right to capitalise on that. A strong approach to resisting further attacks on pay and conditions is essential.
But let’s get to the ballot.
There are already signs of scaremongering from government ministers: that ‘we have no money’ , that there will be deeper cuts (remember D-PER – Department for Public Expenditure and Reform), that there will be compulsory redundancies, that there’s no need to ballot for industrial action because a deal will be done before we can act.
Remember though these are the same people who say ‘there is no alternative’ to ‘Croke Park 2’, that teachers should ideally work a forty hour week. These are the people who started the last round of negotiations with a call for five extra hours teaching (look what happened in Denmark when they tried this), who still threaten all public servants with cuts to salaries across the board and who knows what to conditions. These are the same elected representatives who wish to ignore the votes of two-thirds of public servants and over 75% of all teachers. So much for democracy.
Why should we ballot then if our political leaders prefer to ignore us, prefer to threaten or frighten us?
The first reason is to send a message THAT WE HAVE HAD ENOUGH. That to single out public servants in this way is dishonest, short-sighted and vindictive. The least we can do is remind them that when teachers speak together we shout loudly for fairness and equity.
The second reason is to allow our unions to act if and when the coalition announces a unilateral cut in teachers’ pay in July. Don’t believe them when they say we’d be better off caving in and accepting a ‘tweaked deal’, 85% OF US SAID NO, we have strength in our numbers.
For the three teacher unions anything less than a resounding yes vote will be a sign for those in the newspapers and in government who wish to undermine us at every turn that we were weak or disunited. A Yes vote from members of the ASTI, INTO and TUI will strengthen teachers’ hand in any negotiations to replace ‘Croke Park 2’ with a fairer, more reasoned agreement. Voting no this time will give them the nod to cut again and again.
We need that Yes because we need a ballot to embark on any industrial action, and we must not be the first to break the existing agreements, let them do that by changing our conditions or cutting our salaries. A Yes will give us the authority to direct members to withdraw from whichever activities we decide or indeed ultimately to take strike action. Whichever of those actions are undertaken, with the power of a strong Yes vote we will undertake them together, united and organised, as unions should be.
The wording of the ballot allows teachers to respond to the government in a measured, co-ordinated way. We could stop doing ‘Croke Park hours’, the bane of many a teacher’s life; we might not cooperate with new programmes being introduced to schools; we could work to rule or ultimately go on strike. Gradual escalation would be preferable, but strategy will be decided, as usual, after consulting members.
There is now also an opportunity to rebuild teacher unions. We all talk about how best to reach out to members at school level and how to move beyond the minority of activists to make teacher unionism relevant to much wider groups of workers. This is how: bring them together to oppose the latest attack on our profession, through solidarity between teachers and between their unions.
Despite the apparent unity between teacher’s unions on the rejection of the latest by the coalition to cut pay and worsen conditions, there is still much to concern teachers. The increased presence of data collection, the spectre of standardised tests, the prospect of teachers being subjected to further deep cuts to pay and the worsening of conditions all jostle for the attention of teacher activists. The three teachers unions, the ASTI, the INTO and the TUI have found common ground at least on the attack on the working wages and conditions of work, good old fashioned union concerns.
A strategy for unity on these issues make sense for teachers. The rejection by those three unions of ‘Croke Park 2’ by significant majorities (three of the highest ‘no’ votes of the public sector unions) shows they share at least a strong case for asking for the offer to be renegotiated. Teachers’ unions are at a crossroads in their history.
Teachers need their union, unions needs unity and we need unity on this issue between unions.