ASTI struggles with infighting and internal dysfunction

Members argue the union needs a strategy beyond resisting compromise at all costs

‘While ASTI’s leadership has claimed a principled stand on the rights of new entrants on lower pay, these younger members are the hardest hit as a result of the union’s strategy.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘While ASTI’s leadership has claimed a principled stand on the rights of new entrants on lower pay, these younger members are the hardest hit as a result of the union’s strategy.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

Just over a decade ago the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) was mired in controversy and internal dysfunction.

The union found itself bitterly divided and isolated. Allegations of ongoing bullying and personalised comments by some union members against staff members culminated in a Labour Court ruling.

Its conclusion was succinct: the ASTI’s elected leadership had to “get its house in order”.

Today many observers are wondering - has anything really changed?

ASTI’s head office staff have lodged formal complaints against their employer over an alleged failure to tackle serious allegations and harassment against them by elected officials.

They are due to ballot on industrial action next week following the “continuous refusal” of the management to tackle these issues.

The union is also facing loud criticism from members over its longer-term industrial strategy.

The ASTI is the only public service union which has rejected the Lansdowne Road agreement, which provides for the limited restoration of pay following the austerity-era cuts.

The results of a ballot earlier this year, on continuing its dispute with the Government, show a divided union: 52 per cent in favour, 48 per cent against.

While the union’s leadership has portrayed its opposition as a principled stance over the rights of new entrants on lower pay scales, these younger members are the hardest hit as a result of the union’s strategy.

They have lost out on pay rises for new entrants of up to 22 per cent which are available to the other teaching unions.

They also have to wait four years for a permanent contract, rather than the two years agreed under the Lansdowne Road agreement.

The wider membership, meanwhile, has lost out on thousands of euro in pay increments as a result of the Government’s imposition of penalties under financial emergency legislation.

In stormy scenes yesterday, the union took the unusual step of suspending its normal business to meet privately to address these concerns.

Many members claim the union is haemorrhaging members, and has no real strategy beyond resistance to compromise at any cost. The 18,000-strong union had lost about 450 members up to the end of March.

Members, especially those in dual-union schools, worry that teachers will continue to leave if there is no sign of any resolution to its dispute.

Against this backdrop, the ASTI is hobbled by outdated structural issues which have never been addressed.

Retired members are entitled to vote and are heavily represented at its annual convention.

Unique structure

The ASTI also has a unique structure compared with other national organisations. It has a central executive committee which has more than doubled over recent decades to about 180 members, which lacks young blood.

An internal review in recent years found this committee could not operate in an effective manner, and was unable to respond coherently to a range of challenges.

Before his departure in 2015, former general secretary Pat King warned that the union’s industrial relations strategy could leave it in “a totally isolated position, with no support from the rest of the trade union movement and facing a bitter onslaught from the public and the media”. It was a prescient warning.

The ASTI now finds itself at an uncertain crossroads: does it follow the go-it-alone strategy and risk losing even more members? Or does it admit defeat and row in with other teaching unions and secure the gains on the table?

The union, it seems, is still trying to figure out the answer.

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