The future, the bright and glorious future we are promised is as uncertain as it has ever been. We are in a process of stripping away all the valuable work we have done on education. Remember this association is a professional representative body as well as a trade union. Time for parrhesia. (In Plato’s Apology Socrates says: the cause of my unpopularity was my parrhesia, my fearless speech, my frank speech, my plain speech, my unintimidated speech.)
It is irresponsible for anyone to hide their view of what has gone wrong and what will happen next because they wanted to be popular. My analysis is motivated by a desire to make a positive contribution to the ASTI, though I expect I’ll be chastised for not pulling in the same direction as the crowd, for saying things that the people you get your information from do not want to hear. The ASTI cheerleaders now have put on the agenda motivations that have been kept in abeyance for a decade. Back then we were embroiled in a strategy of having no allies and no direction. It took too long time to restore the reputation of the ASTI, if it was ever restored.
I know that by writing this, I will be accused of having other motives. Of late, it has become verboten to express any opinion contrary to the story ASTI members have been told. In the past, even over the last few weeks, I have been accused of seeking to raise my profile in the ASTI, of trying get revenge for my defeat in internal elections, of using my knowledge of the history, structures and my service to the ASTI as weaponry to down the union, of being an apologist for the government. It is clear that, rather than accepting that there may be people who disagree with decisions made by the ASTI, some reach instead for other motives. (The irony of the way that some of the current leadership has tried to rewrite that same history and spent the last number of years undermining the work done by the ASTI should not be lost on us comrades.) The very fact that I write a blog, which has increasingly become dominated by criticism of this small group of members, some of whom we might expect should know better, has been criticised at executive level of the union. The real reason we (because I am not alone in this view, I’m just the one who ends up writing this stuff down) have become the target is as a a way of avoiding any discussion of ‘inconvenient truths’. But whatever our views, we are expected to button our lips and let the great and good get on with it.
The ASTI has no friends. Instead there is a vague ‘them’ which opposes us include every education body in the country: the NCCA, Teaching Council, School Principals, education journalists, parents’ bodies, other teacher unions and of course the Department of Education itself. This ‘them’ is plotting against us and focussed on us, and act with calculated spite. In this version of the education debate, the ASTI stands alone against this ‘evil’, that single-handed against an ‘unscrupulous enemy’. It sounds ludicrous because it is ludicrous. Each of the bodies mentioned differ from the ASTI in that they don’t see the ASTI as being the centre of the universe while the ASTI’s current leadership view of itself is vainglorious and self-absorbed. And as a result the ASTI is increasingly less relevant.
In fighting our shapeshifting, ubiquitous enemies we are to be a permanent army of discontent, preparing ourselves for perpetual war which we win without endangering our most vulnerable members. It is to be contemptuous of trade unionism to favour no negotiation, no resolutions, no consequences, and promising whatever you like. We would do well to remember that a perpetually fighting, isolated and destitute union is not the union handed to us by our betters.
What is wrong with engaging with these outside bodies? If the ASTI was inclined to be a cat among those pigeons it could make alliances, put common ground under us, rather than trade in paranoia. The relationship between the ASTI and the media, for example, is fraught: on the one hand we are told they are the devil, that they are unsupportive and in bed with the government, while at the same time giving journalists every opportunity to write about the crazy things we do without giving context to these crazy things. It becomes a truism that the ASTI is resistant to change.
Reflecting on the most recent campaign, if we can call it that, we would have to ask what the media strategy was? The media, the public at large will never be the friend of a union at war by itself. When your spokespeople are overexposed or missing in action you haven’t a chance of shaping the story. Most teachers don’t spend their time discussing the ASTI, most citizens of this Republic don’t care about the politics of trade unions. They might see a headline on facebook, but more likely catch a bit of the nine o’clock news or Morning Ireland in the car. Social media isn’t the beginning or the end of media engagement, but should reinforce the message. Appearing on tv and radio at every possible opportunity requires having a disciplined message underpinning a coherent objective. None of this was in evidence during the campaign.
There were always three ASTI camps: one wanted to chance everything to achieve our desired outcomes, one wanted to do nothing, and one wanted to act in a calculated way. It has become clear that the first two are merging into one, making common cause against change (on Junior Cycle for example), they have and will block any advance towards a single pay scale, they make promises they have no intention of honouring. When the tide goes out, these two groups will blame their failures on others.
In the narrative of permanent attack, ideas and rigorous discussion have disappeared. So that teachers can be led in whatever direction the leadership dictate, it is necessary to withhold information, to pretend the ASTI has been weak for a decade. It becomes the truth that being in the trade union movement is worse than being isolated and fighting alone against the ‘bad guys’ mentioned above. The saddest effect of the recent campaign is that teachers whose new engagement might otherwise have been a bonus, has instead been built on a belief that shouting loudest is preferable to negotiating. Those teachers are bound to be become disillusioned with the cheques the leadership write go uncashed, weakening the ASTI when the purported aim was to strengthen it. The ASTI’s place should be in the trade union family, putting the case, built on logic, that teachers have things of value to say.
When people feel threatened they don’t think clearly. In recent times the greatest threats come from within, warning that if you don’t support the strategy you are against us, even when you know the strategy is flawed. The shameful truth is that we listen to the hostile, narcissistic narrative of them versus us and many of us have started to believe it. But, just as teachers can’t do their job without support, teacher unions simply cannot take to the field alone, if we intend to enter the field at all. Without friends, other teacher unions especially, we are diminished.
WB Yeats, when writing about the Irish Free State said a nation reaching intellectual maturity, he said pride replaced vanity, and the proud do not disguise their faults. The ASTI is not there yet, the self-confidence to examine our mistakes is not a feature of the union, it appears to be too much work to learn from errors (the irony of this for people who deal with teenagers all day should not be lost).
So there is a crisis which has not been acknowledged by our leadership. With the majority of members disengaged but still having a residual trust in their leadership, a trust routinely abused by Standing Committee and CEC. The absence of professional negotiators, magnified by their distrust of Head Office officials, has eroded the ASTI’s standing among trade unions. The further acceptance and promulgation of simplistic answers to the complex issues of pay and conditions go unchallenged now. Going back to Yeats and development of self respect: the more members know of the reality of our union’s actions, the more they will realise we lack that self respect.
So this isn’t just a conflict between the ASTI and government departments, it is also a struggle for the ASTI itself. Only when we take back control of the ASTI will it start to do what it should be doing for all of us. We will have to have a clear programme for all teachers to be more involved in their union. We will have to organise, prepare, things that good teachers do. Unions should do so much more than, as Tony Benn put it, ‘actively favour the conservative policy of acquisitiveness’, this applies to what is wrong with the ASTI, and when he said they ‘have hardly made any serious effort to explain their work to those who are not union members, even to the wives and families of those who are’, he could have been describing the view of the ASTI from the outside. There are structural issues with the union (I dealt with those here) but there is also the problem of the ideas we stand for being unclear, even to members. These ideas should be capable of seeing off the wreckers. But we should not delay in refocusing on education and restructuring the ASTI. We should aid and encourage each other, in every school and branch to lead the ASTI from the bottom up, rather than the top down, to do away with uncertainty and humming and hawing. Anyone who doubts that this is possible should be disabused of their concerns. These are the days of dispute for dispute sake, of backward conservatism and the interests of our most vulnerable comrades are dispensable. We must be firm and decisive when the pieces are to be picked up. We must know what we want and make it clear to our opponents. And we must hurry.
This especially is the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, directly and courageously. We should not be afraid of facing the perilous state of our union now. This union will only endure, recover and thrive if we banish the negative narrative of teacher union weakness. A capable and bold leadership is not in evidence now and supporting the direction we are taking is is plainly difficult for many teachers. The difficulties facing teachers are too numerous to mention (read this post of mine on alienation in the profession), but we should be facing them together. What does getting rid (momentarily) of Croke Park hours, for example, do for new entrants? What does removing access to CIDs do for non-permanent teachers? What does closing off redeployment do? Expectations of what can be achieved are being blown out of all proportion, and lead to inevitable defeat and meaningless posturing. In an atmosphere where our sister unions have decided to put their members first and negotiate on their behalf, our leadership has chosen to sail the ship so close to the rocks as to risk losing everything. Of course, when you can blame the rocks for wrecking your ship, you can sail where you like. The complaint that we have been mistreated as if we never knew what the official side were going to do is nonsense. The official response didn’t emerge from nowhere like some plague of frogs. It would appear that the truth, that it was known all along what would happen if the ASTI repudiated a pay agreement, is still hard for some to admit.
It is hard not to think of the ASTI when rereading Gramsci: ‘a crisis in and of itself will not change the position of your opposition, it makes you weaker, or at best (gives) the appearance of weakness’. That is why the campaign of strike action on Junior Cycle was so successful: it was calm, studied, firm resistance, built on the voice of teachers (and Teachers’ Voice). It wasn’t a decision made in crisis and it had the backing of teachers and the public throughout in its execution. What has replaced this guile and ability to get things done? Stubbornness, incompetence, unscrupulous abdication of responsibility and clinging to outworn ideas are born out of fear of change and the desire to preserve ego.
These are dark days, comrades, but it will be worth the darkness if it teaches us our union survives when we are not, as FDR put it ‘ministered unto but minister to ourselves’. Talking about it is not enough. In recreating a functioning union, we have to do two things: we have to abandon gambling when we have no cards and we have to provide sound, evidence based strategy that can be explained to the public and be clear to teachers.
The ASTI faces an existential crisis. There will be those who prefer to just to say: all the problems that exist are the fault of ‘them’. They also seem to believe making agreements is an act of treason. It is treason though to seek agreements to make teachers working lives worse. It is trade unionism to seek incremental improvements to works pay and conditions.
If the ASTI goes down the road some are proposing, will you just comfort yourself by blaming it on the newspapers and the Minister for Education? Will that get you through the pain of pay disparity and creeping managerialism? These might be uncomfortable questions but the situation is perilous and unless satisfactory answers are offered, we enable the very people who want to protest until death.
Repeatedly when I have asked what we could do to reach the disaffected, uninvolved member, I heard responses that dismissed them as ‘people who use the union as an insurance policy’, or that ‘I never hear from disaffected members’. I have always been convinced that unless we embark on a process which at least turns those members into ASTI-aware teachers, and at best mobilises them in a genuine campaign of action, the ASTI will wither away in failure. I am worried that the lack of desire for problem-solving might be because of the fear of failure on our side. When fear is the leadership’s only bond with the members, paper and map authority is all that exists, like the Ottoman Empire of old. The difference is the authoritarians of the 19th and 20th centuries were generally disciplined and had grandiose plans. The plan in this instance is underdeveloped and opaque, built on a fragile impulse to lash out at anything that threatens a fragile sense of self-esteem. In between those disinterested and disaffected teachers and those claiming to lead there are the vast bulk of us who don’t care, but enable the leadership. This has caused longterm damage to the union and to teachers themselves. This has allowed an ugliness to surface, online and in person among ASTI members, tainting the union and the many good people who believe in it. We are going to have to get off the fence.
When you leaders are being attacked, then underperforming, then becoming defensive, intolerance towards any criticism results. I’ve spent years trying to present the ASTI positively to teachers and the public, but now I’m a Tory, this blog is an echo chamber (duh!), a suck up to the media, etc etc.
To criticise the leadership is to facilitate the media-government conspiracy that assumes the ASTI is the centre of the national narrative. But those attacks differ from what I’m doing in that they want the ASTI to fail, or at least neutral, I want the exact opposite, I am anything but neutral: I want the ASTI to succeed or the ASTI will crash and burn and an essential support for teachers in distress will be discredited in the eyes of those who most need it.
The residual loyalty ASTI members seem to feel for their leaders is ebbing away. This union is not inclusive, it is not optimistic. When even different views from inside the tent can’t be tolerated, this isn’t likely to change.
A clear manifesto, five or ten priorities would refocus the ASTI as a professional body and as a trade union. Starting a process of finding out what teachers in schools want, might be instructive and might mobilise the activists to reach those who are disengaged. All the failures to communicate clear strategy, failures to inform, and having something we are for, not just things were are against. Leadership from the members.
The intellectualism and interest in education that should drive the ASTI needs to be fostered. In fact the very opposite has become the norm: dispensing with research, providing anti-intellectual arguments for decisions, the promotion of reactionary tactics, the failure to get ahead of the opposition, to take decisions when time is right.
Gramsci again: ‘there is no organisation without intellectuals, that is without organisers and leaders… But the process of creating intellectuals is long and difficult, full of contradictions, advances and retreats, dispersal and regrouping, in which the loyalty of the masses is often sorely tried.’
Intellectualism shouldn’t be a dirty word, any organisation that wants to survive has to create its own intellectuals to develop its own identity. They should be fostered, trained and supported by their union, teachers are ideal for this, and the ASTI should be encouraging them in trade union training, rather than accepting those school by political parties outside the trade union movement.
We have to put our own house in order and serve teachers first. We should dedicate the ASTI to a policy of self respect first, from that follows respect for other education bodies, they then will respect their obligations and the agreements we have made. (When we enter the arena, without sacrificing our morals and ideals, we level the playing field)
None of that can happen until there is a rebalancing of the authority of the executive branches of the union and the membership. This will be the hardest task. In the event that members fail to take back control of their union and this crisis continues, beyond the current battle, as it did in the last decade, the ASTI will become a spent force.
Having 18,000 members is a powerful position, holding on to them in the current climate might proved tricky, but I’m more interested in mobilising them over the long term. There are so many things we can’t tackle because of the refusal to resolve the issues put before us in the most recent ballot.
So. Where is the clear vision? What are we in favour of, in simple language what do we want?
Two stories to finish.
I remember some years ago meeting the father in law of a friend of mine who asked what I did for a living, when I told him I was a teacher, he responded ‘you aren’t one of those ASTI loopers are you’. I laughed it off, but I didn’t forget it. I don’t like being that guy at a social gathering. I like being a teacher. I’m proud of being a teacher.
When I mentioned to a friend my intention of writing another blogpost about the ASTI, he texted back ‘why bother?’ We teachers are used to managerialism or teaching to the test wearing us down, but when we are being worn down by the professional body to which we should be drawn for comfort and support, a change has to come.
This is the final part of a three part analysis of the ASTI.
CEC member 2003-16
Standing Committee 2011-16
ASTI member since 1993
Responses/comments welcome as always