Irish Teachers Set For Strike Action

ICTU march against austerity – the EU has cut wages and living standards in Ireland massively plus forcing hundreds of thousands to leave the country
ICTU march against austerity – the EU has cut wages and living standards in Ireland massively plus forcing hundreds of thousands to leave the country

SCHOOLTEACHERS in Ireland are set to strike over a number of issues, including the 10% pay cut that has affected as many as 6,000 of them who started working at primary and secondary level since 2011.

Along with the removal of qualifications allowances since 2012, estimates range from 100,000 to 300,000 euros in how much less will be earned over a 40-year career by those who started in recent years in comparison to longer-serving colleagues.

The issue has taken priority at all three teacher union conferences which have been held over the past few days. The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) annual convention voted overwhelmingly to order a ballot of nearly 18,000 members in September for action up to strike if equal pay for all is not restored by then.

Although a similar motion did not get to the floor in time at the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) congress, its leadership has a pre-existing mandate to ballot for industrial action on the issue. TUI general secretary John MacGabhann said the pay differential was compounded by some employers treating vulnerable newly qualified teachers as ‘galley slaves’.

His ASTI counterpart, Kieran Christie, said while cuts to all public service starting pay had taken effect five years ago, it was coming to the fore in teaching now as it was one of the few sectors which had been able to continually hire staff due to growing student numbers in the intervening period.

At the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation congress, where the cuts to newly qualified teachers was the focus of attention and unanimously condemned, delegates spoke of their difficulties living and trying to obtain mortgages on the reduced salaries.

The TUI conference heard that disadvantaged students in regional locations would be hit particularly badly if the government proceeds with its current plans to merge Institutes of Technology to create technological universities.

The TUI has already balloted its 4,000 members in Institutes of Technology for industrial action up to and including strike action in protest at the proposals and will cease cooperation with any merger activities from next Monday.

Addressing the union’s annual conference in Killarney, Co Kerry, TUI Deputy General Secretary Annette Dolan said the union was not opposed to technological universities, but could not accept the way they were being created with a requirement to merge before applying for Technological University status.

This was being done with no protection for conditions of service and no guarantees of course provision in the regions.

She said the TUI believes that the real agenda is cost reduction and rationalisation, which could diminish the quality of the education delivered to students, as well as jeopardising the jobs and conditions of members.

The union argues that under the Technological Universities Bill, which did not make it through the Dáil ahead of last month’s General Election, Institutes of Technology will be forced to merge before making an application for Technical University status, with no guarantee of receiving that status afterwards.

Dolan said members feared that this was a mechanism for cutting resources for the sector, which was already underfunded, adding that members would not buy a ‘pig in a poke’. She noted that 190 million euros had been stripped out of the Institutes of Technology sector, and staffing had fallen by 9.5% at a time when student numbers had risen by 32%.

She added that the lower points threshold for entry to Institutes of Technology meant that many of their students needed the extra support of staff to make it through to an honours degree. However that was not possible under current resourcing, and could be contributing to the higher drop-out rates.

She also noted that many IT students came from a lower socio-economic background, and could not afford to move to a different part of the country if courses were rationalised under the merger proposals.

She said people had worn the green jersey for the austerity years, but that could not continue – and issues of workload triggered by cuts in resources would have to be addressed through additional funding for additional staff.

TUI Assistant General Secretary Aidan Kenny said in some classes students did not have resources including material and correct equipment to do experiments. He said the average OECD student teacher ratio in the sector was 16 to 1, but the Irish sector has a ratio of 23 to 1.

Dolan noted that with the current political numbers, there was an opportunity to lobby incoming politicians for significant revisions of the legislative proposals. Both TUI officials criticised the lack of consultation with the union in relation to the merger.

The TUI has estimated that 30% or more of teachers are on temporary or part-time contracts, with that proportion rising to 50% among those aged under 35. Speakers also noted that some teachers in second-level schools on low-hour contracts had those hours allocated across several days, making it impossible to avail themselves of supplementary employment elsewhere.

Anne Marie Courtney from Kerry told the conference that in 2007-2008, a 16-hour lecturer contract became available to staff at the Institute of Technology in Tralee when a staff member was seconded to a different position.

She said this contract was then converted into two separate contracts of nine hours each. In 2014, the two nine-hour contracts were further sub-divided into 17 contracts spread between ten staff members. She said the luckiest person in the bunch got a six hour contract, while another got a contract for 2.25 teaching hours per week.

However, many of the contracts were for one hour – with teachers given a contract of two half-hours. Courtney told the delegates that teachers, lecturers and the profession were being demeaned by casualisation.

TUI vice president Joanne Irwin told of a young teacher trying to survive on a contract for six teaching hours per week. The six hours were timetabled over five days, meaning she did not have sufficient income to move out of home to live closer to her job.

The conference passed a motion condemning casualisation and demanding that management should prioritise increasing hours for people on low hours or part-time contracts before recruiting additional part time staff.

It also called for the annual publication of a list of employers that fail to augment working hours for low-hours teachers before advertising vacancies. The Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland has voted to stop fulfilling 33 additional hours of work introduced several years ago under a national pay deal. The so-called ‘Croke Park’ hours oblige teachers to remain in school for 33 additional hours annually.

Delegates at the ASTI conference in Cork described the hours as ‘demeaning’ and ‘stupid’. One delegate said they had been introduced as a PR stunt to satisfy people who thought teachers had ‘a handy job’.

He said teachers were fed up to the hilt of sitting in meaningless meetings when they could be doing other work such as class preparation instead. The ASTI General Secretary warned the incoming government that his union will take ‘every opportunity’ to recover teachers’ terms and conditions and will apologise to no one for doing so.

Kieran Christie said members’ anger over differential pay scales was ‘entirely justifiable’. But he criticised what he called suggestions that the differential pay scales arose because existing public servants had ‘pulled up the ladders’ and abandoned new recruits.

Christie said such claims were entirely untrue and were being put forward by the same people who had sought to ignite tensions between public and private sector workers a few years ago. He said unions were not part of the talks and government decisions that had led to those cuts.

On the union’s opposition to curriculum ‘reform’, Christie said the ASTI wanted dialogue but it was the Minister for Education who had refused to sit down. Referring to the union’s plans for a series of strikes on the issue in September he warned that the ASTI would not do a deal at any price.

He said if no progress was made the union would take the necessary action to force the issue, and ensure the matter was thrashed out once and for all.