Why is the general membership of the ASTI is so disconnected from the structures that make decisions for them? Why are members so willing to hand the running of the union over to the few (often unelected and most definitely unknown) members who are ‘active’? At my estimation there are about 800 such active members in an organisation of 17,000, less than five percent. Among them those of us over forty are far more well represented than those under forty and newly entering the profession. This is unhealthy at best.
The relationship between the teacher in the classroom and the ASTI is broken and those teachers are ill-served by leaders who seem to put crisis before education, using the ASTI as a vehicle to promote the political views of the few over the good of the whole teaching profession. When the aim is to perpetuate crisis over a long period, as is evident in recent weeks, incurable structural problems start to emerge, but go unaddressed. The crisis consumes everything, so any attempt to fix ‘peripheral’ issues is ignored. The time is long overdue to modernise and improve the structures of the ASTI and to improve the quality and depth of information members receive about their union.
The ASTI has no collected, or published, set of principles, so it’s easy to assert what the Association stands for without really knowing. (A guide could be found in Rule 5 of the ASTI Constitution and in my next post in this threepart series, part one is here.) The levers of decisionmaking need to be in the possession of those in whose interests the union acts. That is not the case in the ASTI. From schools to Branches, from Branches to CEC (Central Executive Committee), between CEC and SC, and between SC and the Officers of the union, communication is broken, has broken or will break down in the near future. We can see this very clearly in the claim recently that huge majorities have supported action taken by SC, when the type of action was only decided after the ballot was held and voters, in the view of many, made their decisions without a full explanation of their consequences.
The task of being School Steward should be rewarded by waiving their subscriptions, but it will only evolve into a functioning position when information flows freely between Head Office and schools. Facilitating collaboration between Stewards to solve common problems could be achieved if they were encouraged to attend training after their terms end to give feedback on what they experienced. Each school should be visited at least every three years by officials given the specific job of organising in schools, so that if there’s war they get the feeling of the footsoldiers, and if there’s peace they can share the credit. If you don’t talk to members you can easily pretend you know what they think, as de Valera said: ‘if I wish to know what the Irish want, I look into my own heart’, same goes for many making decisions in the ASTI.
Free membership should be extended to everyone who has qualified since 2011 and earns an unequal salary through changes to their pay scales. They aren’t joining in large numbers now and this would both give them a voice and focus the minds of everyone to move to full equality fast. It makes sense to give anyone who works in a temporary position membership for a nominal fee. Though giving an important voice to people who have given huge service to the ASTI over the years, retired membership should no longer be free, retired teachers do not have the same stake in the profession as those who are in still teaching in classrooms.
Members do not attend Branch meetings in numbers, we all lament this but nobody does anything about it. If Head Office had information on when meetings were being held, members in that Branch could be alerted by text, email or social media. To revive the Branches it will be necessary to open up what they do to include meetings beyond ordinary business: external speakers, specific meetings for new entrants or subject groups. It should be a requirement that regional SC Representatives and CEC members attend all Branch meetings to answer for and defend the actions taken on behalf of ASTI members. Ultimately the ASTI should be following the best practice of some of our sister unions abroad and providing CPD for teachers. I’ll go into that in more detail in a later post.
The ASTI has fifteen committees varying in size from CEC at 180 to smaller ad hoc five member bodies. The committee structure would be far more effective if it was used as a way to bring new activists into the ASTI. It isn’t. Members shouldn’t be allowed to serve on more than one committee at a time and six continuous years should the limit for membership. With an issue like pay equality, the input of those committees should be sought when deciding core policy.
CEC suffers from it’s size and attendances have fallen dramatically of late. Often meetings start late, run on too long with repetitive speeches and questions asked in the form of statements. Not enough information is given to CEC members in advance of their meetings, my view of this is very clear: insufficient information means emotional decisions. When you know this it becomes easier to understand why CEC makes curious decisions (recently it decided not to give members full information on the implications of a ballot on Croke Park Hours). On many occasions the tension and distrust between CEC and SC is seen by the unwillingness of SC members to stand over their decisions or opinions at CEC. Then again, CEC is also frequently undermined by some of it’s own members who regard SC and the officers, no matter who they are, as the enemy.
Standing Committee should confine itself to strategizing and planning forward. SC meetings often become bogged down before they start, disputes over minutes and correspondence often take up a large part of the monthly meetings. It would help if documents circulated in advance were taken as read and not discussed in detail. The Arrangements and Procedures for Standing Committee (a document plainly unfamiliar to some member of SC itself as the provisions are regularly ignored) makes it clear that individual member or school issues shouldn’t be raised, but they often are, wasting time on Industrial Relations issues better dealt with by IR staff. SC could be a huge source of ideas on education and industrial relations, but the falling interest in even running for election to the committee is not a good sign and only about half a dozen of members went through elections to get there.
The Presidency should last for two years. It should never been seen as a reward for service to the ASTI, and the process of selection (which centres on a Vice-Presidential race one year before) should be capable of expansion to a hustings including addressing members directly at meetings in advance of a choice being made.
The ASTI Annual Convention should be completely reorganised. It has become tired, repetitive and sterile. Little that takes place at Convention affects the work of teachers in classrooms. Few topical issues can be discussed because the gap between the submission of Convention motions in November and the Convention itself at Easter can be up to four months. Motions are almost never contentious. Deeper discussion on topics out of which motions could be proposed would be far better. As Convention goes on the numbers in attendance falls, last year there were only 50% of the opening day attendance present at the end. Keeping members involved and interested until the third day could be done by holding all elections on the final day of Convention instead of towards the beginning.
The appointment of a General Secretary is the most important task the executive undertakes. They, or their proxies, should be informed in their decision by expert legal and industrial relations opinion and recruitment experts should be consulted at every stage of the process.
As the staff of Head Office are the employees of the ASTI, they should be treated as any teacher would expect to be treated by their manager, employer or principal, anything less would be hypocritical.
Information is what teachers deal in, there should be no objection to providing members of the ASTI with as much information as they need about how the association works and the implications of the decisions we all make. If the members of the ASTI are to take control of the union again, they need to make it clear that they want to contribute to the direction the ASTI should move in. If they want to maintain the current direction, that’s fine, but I’d bet that with a deeper knowledge of the structures of the ASTI they will choose common sense and reform of those structures. If an opportunity is not taken, the balance will shift back to the old ruling class, which will reestablish its dominance.
The day will come when a crisis within the leadership causes them to split, fracture and turn against themselves. The crisis may be closer than we think.
CEC member 2003-16
Standing Committee 2011-16
ASTI member since 1993
Responses/comments welcome as always