15 March 2001 Edition

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Parents must accept teachers right to strike


17,000 teachers returned to the picket line this week. Their action closed more than 600 secondary schools for one day as the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) restarted industrial action after rejecting a Labour Court recommendation which asks that the teachers union to pursue their 30% wage claim through the Dublin Government's bench marking pay body.

The ASTI executive rejected the Labour Court judgment by a margin of 151 to 10, because though the court accepts that the teachers have a case for a substantial wage increase, the union was disappointed that no offer was made and the negotiation process they have already rejected was to be foisted on them again.

Now, with the prospects of a two-day stoppage next week and a three-day stoppage the week after, an environment of accusation and recrimination has made the speedy resolution of this dispute even more unlikely.

The difficult and tense nature of the dispute was compounded earlier in the week when Barbara Johnston, the public relations officer of the Congress of Catholic Secondary Schools Parents Association, described the teachers as ``behaving like terrorists''.

``You have kidnapped our children's future and are now holding that future to ransom'' wrote Johnston in the Irish Times.

Fianna Fáil education minister Michael Woods has worsened relations with not just the ASTI but other teachers unions by his proposals to hire graduates and primary school teachers to correct this summer's Leaving Certificate exams. Now these plans are in disarray, as SIPTU and the INTO have both rejected taking up the role that would have been played by the ASTI in exam marking. The refusal of Bertie Ahern to respond positively to ASTI requests for negotiations has only worsened already bad relations between the teachers and the Dublin government.

Though the teachers have come in for substantial criticism because of a very limited course of industrial action there has been little comment from the Dublin government on their role in what has become a needless industrial relations fiasco.

The Dublin government position has been to push the different teachers unions to make their wage claims through the proposed benchmarking body. The ASTI was not part of the agreement on benchmarking and have been opposed to the idea since it was first proposed early last year.

The Dublin government ignored this opposition and let growing anger within the ASTI that their wage claims were not been taken seriously spread into support for the industrial action that has been closing schools since last November.

The Dublin government only compounded matters by docking teachers £600 in pay the week before Christmas for working to rule. Their steadfast support for the benchmarking body is now prolonging this dispute needlessly.

Worse still is the fact that the dispute has also thrown up another crucial industrial relations issue - that is the right to take industrial action. There has been a growing parental lobby attacking and vilifying the teachers since the beginning of the dispute.

It seems that parents groups are happy once their children are in classes being taught. It matters not if the teachers are underpaid or that the school facilities are substandard once the children are not sent home to study.

Yes there is understandable angst about the effects the dispute is having on exams but the reality is that very few schools days have been lost because of this dispute and students have plenty of study and revision to do on the days of industrial action.

However, why let this get in the way of using emotive language and getting into the politics of blame. The only way this dispute is going to be resolved is through the Dublin government acknowledging that teachers have a claim and a right to negotiate with their employers. Parents groups have to recognise that the threat to their childrens' education is being massively overstated and that teachers' rights to take industrial action must be respected.

Taoiseach can intervene for U2 but not ASTI?

Commenting on Wednesday's ASTI action and the Taoiseach's position, Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said:

``Despite repeated requests, the Taoiseach has refused to intervene directly in the secondary teachers' dispute. Yet today we learn that he has promised to fast-track legislation in order to facilitate a second U2 gig at Slane. While the disappointment of U2 fans is understandable, it pales to nothing in comparison with the grave concern of pupils and teachers as exam chaos looms this summer.

Where are the Taoiseach's priorities? He should step in now to lead direct negotiations and to ensure a just and comprehensive pay award to the teachers.''

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1