19 April 2001 Edition

Resize: A A A Print

Teachers in militant mood


The ASTI annual conference in Galway on Tuesday night greeted minister Michael Woods with something more than the kind of hostility that might normally be directed at a pupil courting expulsion.

There is a strong probability the ASTI membership will reject the Labour Court's recommendations. The vote will also be affected by increased militancy on the part of other teachers' unions
Woods not only misread the mood of the conference - not surprising, considering his refusal at times to even engage in negotiations with teachers - but his comments were absurd. ``Recent brain research has revolutionised our understanding of how young people learn,'' he imparted, as though addressing an audience hanging on his every word. Of course, the immediate response was laughter.

They laughed because the man who had tried to crush their five exasperating months of protests and strikes was now blithely lecturing them on educational psychology.

They laughed because prior to Woods' speech, one third of his audience had already walked out in protest, while the other two thirds heckled him throughout. Only the invited guests clapped as he concluded. Teachers looked on in stony silence.

Woods was not the only person to be berated at the ASTI conference. Two representatives of the National Parents Council Post Primary claimed that they were verbally abused by ASTI delegates. While such abuse is not desirable, it is hardly surprising considering the kind of self righteous rhetoric we have seen from self-appointed parents councils during the teachers' strikes.

The Congress of Catholic Secondary Schools Parents' Associations, in particular, said they could not support the strike action because it ``targeted our children and threatened our children's futures''. To be fair, they also criticised Michael Woods for his mishandling of the dispute with the ASTI. But while the parents' organisations are at their most vocal at times when teachers are kicking back against the system, where are they when the same teachers are trying to secure 'our children's futures', against the odds?

The ASTI have been demonised more than any of the other teachers' unions. Their decision to take on the government, the media and the holy cow that is the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF) has left them isolated.

But the ASTI's aim, throughout the last year and for many years, has been to improve the educational system. At this year's conference they conveyed their concern for students in calling for pilot projects to be introduced whereby chosen teachers would act as mentors for disruptive students. ASTI president Seán Higgins explained that the Tiger economy has also had a negative toll on the education system. ``Employers are taking students out of the school and requiring students to clock on at 4pm. The workplace has become the disciplinary place for students and the school is the playground where they relax.''

Pressures on young people to perform in many different arenas are steering them away from education. It's evident in the increase in suicides, drug addiction and youth alcoholism among young people. In this scenario, and where parents and the state are often negligent, teachers are forced to act as child psychologists, social workers and educators to pupils who are often too tired or distracted to want to be educated.

The negative attitudes that have been stoked up against teachers in the last six months need to be countered if we are to promote a healthy society. So too must the perception that this is 'just about money' be dispelled.

The Labour Court recommendations on benchmarking have, to some extent, distorted the issues. And there are several issues, besides the central banner of a '30 per cent pay rise', which have given rise to an uncomfortable degree of ambiguity around those recommendations.

Firstly, the Labour Court/PPF recommendations may not take any account of past productivity from teachers. The public service employers and Department of Finance, in their submission to the benchmarking body, made clear that they believe benchmarking should not be used to compensate for past productivity and flexibility. This means that better wages may mean more work and worse conditions.

The Labour Court's recommendations are also a return to the PPF, from which the ASTI membership voted to exempt themselves. Four per cent of the PPF payment to teachers is to be allocated on the basis that they engage in the 'whole school' plans - a gateway through which major changes in education will be implemented. However, these changes will come without adequate resources or back-up for the teachers who will implement them. Again, better wages with more work and worse conditions.

The public service employers and the Department of Finance also state in their submissions that pay developments must have due regard to international and domestic events. This is the catch. If the predicted downturn in the 26-County economy occurs - a serious 'domestic event' - it could easily be used as an excuse for calling a halt to pay increases.

Next week, the ASTI's 17,000 members will be balloted on the Labour Court's recommendations. If the outcome of the election for incoming president of the organisation was any indicator of that ballot outcome, there is a strong probability the recommendations will be rejected. While sitting vice-president, Catherine Fitzpatrick won the contest by 253 votes to 204, her margin of victory over her more hardline opponent Patricia Wroe was far less than expected.

The vote will also be affected by increased militancy on the part of other teachers' unions. The Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI), whose conference was held in Bundoran this week, were themselves subject to internal dissent over acceptance of the PPF. The TUI membership voted last year to reject the deal, but its executive decided to submit to the will of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and commit their support. This led to a motion of no confidence in the TUI leadership at this week's conference which, though defeated, was supported by six of the union's branches including Dublin.

Even the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, which support the Labour Court proposals, have been outspoken in their conference this week in Tralee. General secretary Joe O'Toole said that if benchmarking fails, teachers will mount an ``outright war''.

That war may not be fought by teachers alone. Staffing levels among nurses, junior doctors and other workers in the public sector are dropping off because of inadequate pay and conditions. And with little sign of the Dublin government budging on their beloved PPF, further crises are certain.

Outgoing president of the ASTI Don McCluskey was incisive in stressing the importance of the union's ballot this week. ``In essence they have to decide which is the best route to take now to achieve a substantial salary rise for teachers. Whatever the decision they take, the campaign continues and will not end until we achieve our aim.''

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1