I’ve never been one to view worker-employer relationships as a them-and-us construct. The lack of human capacity to truly accept responsibility for one’s actions, and the underlying cowardice that can’t but pursue expedient escape routes has meant that there always will be plenty of blame to spread around conflicting parties. We should always be careful about the stones we cast. Yet workers unions do not exist because people have little better to do with their time. I’ve always seen unions as a necessary evil. Evil because they sometimes fail to see that employers interests’ are also workers interests. But necessary because employers often fail to see that workers interests’ are also theirs.
And that is why this teachers’ strike is different to those that have gone before. And why it is more than a teachers’ strike. It is fundamentally about how much power The People are prepared to allow the Government to exercise over them.
In implementing certain pay reductions and restraints from 2008, the Government* was caught between several rocks and several hard places. Had the Government taken better decisions during the boom years, had they seen the wisdom of prudent fiscal management, they would not have made the bed in which they were later going to ask all of us to lie. Of course, people made demands, but choosing expediency always results in more problems down the road. And there was expediency on both sides – the Government and the unions.
(*not just the small-g government of the ruling political party but the senior civil servants too)
The result is, to coin a phrase, ‘we are where we are’. And the ‘where we are’ is a situation in which the Government discovered it could get away with pay inequality. This would have been ‘fine’ except the Government declared that financial austerity was over and the economy was thriving. To cement this fact, they gave themselves a pay rise. They even committed to fully restoring Firefighters pay (and well-deserved their pay is too) – an event they recognise as a difficult precedent for them but a precedent they are desperately trying to ignore. No wonder then the Association of Secondary School Teachers (ASTI) got antsy.
To be fair, the ASTI has a fairly antsy core. I wish I could say that they are always justified. They’re not, only sometimes. But this time they are spot on.
Ignore the vast range of new initiatives (including this one) designed and imposed on schools by people who are ignorant of the daily realities of schools in Ireland and what actually works in a classroom as opposed to in restricted-paradigmatic research papers; ignore the increased demands on teachers time, the lack of recognition in official circles, the psychotic duality of the reportage in the media (we love you, we hate you) and the venomous bile of the likes of Ed Walsh; ignore the effect of cut-backs set against a vast array of education quangos; ignore the junior cycle reform (needed, but flawed) and the mess it has become; ignore all these because we all have our own unique crosses to bear.
But what you cannot ignore, whether or not you are a teacher, is the dangerous precedent of accepting unequal rates of pay. I would like to say that during a financial emergency, it is understandable. But be that as it may be, it is still wrong.
To be clear, there is a human right to equal pay for equal work. This is not just a teacher issue, it is an issue for all workers.
But the Government is keen to put the ASTI back in their box. Hence their ‘negotiated’ agreement with the INTO and the TUI, arguably ‘designed’ to undermine and isolate the ASTI.
The fanfare was huge; the INTO proudly declaring how they ‘negotiated’ a step towards equality. BUT IT’S NOT EQUALITY and they said so, just not in the press release. The TUI, trumpeting how they achieved huge gains toward pay restoration. BUT THEY DIDN’T and they said so, just not in the press release.
And what they both argued was a step towards ‘restoration’ was in fact a sell-out of their members who must hand over productivity gains for the 30 pieces of silver they will get.
To be clear, if you take €10 that is mine, I will want it back. If you tell me you will give it back, but only if I mow your front lawn, then you are not just stealing from me, but trying to make a fool of me.
This is what INTO and the TUI have negotiated for their members. They have told their members they are getting their pay restored. But really what they did was bind up their members so as to effectively neuter their union power. The TUI members might be getting €6 per fortnight (yes, six euros every 14 days) for Supervision and Substitution; but the Government is the one laughing all the way to the bank. (btw, read the TUI documents on this; they highlight that the DES and the DPER do not have the ability to fully conclude agreements on these pay issues; so the INTO and the TUI weren’t even negotiating with the right people).
And this was working for the Government. That was until the Gardaí threw the Government’s toys out of their cot. There are no fools in the Gardaí; they have to deal with the everyday realities
of politicians’ failed social and economic policies.
Bear in mind that the Government’s attempts to maintain unequal pay are set against a time when they are giving themselves pay rises. And when they are appealing a decision to force Apple to pay the 12.5% tax they should have paid instead of the .5% they actually paid.
Unequal pay is unequal. It is in and of itself discriminatory. It is wrong and if they get away with it, if they can put the ASTI back in their box, you can be pretty sure they will come for the all the other unions when the Lansdowne Road Agreement (LRA) is over. And you can be sure this will happen because the Government failed to honour their Haddington Road Agreement with the ASTI unless the ASTI signed up to their new (LRA) agreement. And yes Virginia, that is an abuse of power.
So the media campaign is about to heat up.
The sort of people who think that just because they went to school they have a valid opinion on education will phone Joe Duffy to complain while forgetting how great their teacher is to take their kids for free for extra-curricular sports so they can keep child care costs down.
The Government-funded National Parents Council will no doubt pop their heads up to pronounce how they forget who looks after their children during the day (real people as opposed to performing monkeys).
The Irish Times, the so-called paper of record, will try to be balanced but will most likely fail miserably.
Newstalk FM, owned by FG’s buddy Denis O’Brien, will churn out it’s usual one-sided nonsense because getting a rise out of their listeners is always good for advertising revenue.
The Government is even busy about telling the world and it’s granny that the ASTI “repudiated” the Landsdowne Road Agreement, hoping that people will not know that one cannot “repudiate” that which one was not a part of.
And the Government is also going to say that they can’t afford pay equality despite the cost of a bajillion education quangos, and their refusal of the EU ruling on Apple’s tax.
This campaign will be fought and won, not in school closures, but in the media. It will help the Government that the ASTI does not have a professional PR team working for them. The Government’s challenge is not to lose control of the situation. Undoubtedly, the government will say the ASTI offers no solutions. But this is the Government’s monkey; it is entirely their plan, entirely their responsibility, and it must be their plan that upholds workers human right to equal pay for equal work. Lord knows, we pay them vast sums of money to do their job.
But if the Government wins, you can be sure that all workers will lose, not just teachers. When the Government comes for your right to equal pay, you want to be able to say you stood with the ASTI and prevented the Government from subjugating your human right to equal pay to political expedience and politicians inability to accept responsibility for their abuse of their power.