Whose picket line is it anyway?
As teachers’ unions gather for their yearly conferences, it’s time to ask who they really stand for
Lámha suas: Delegates vote in 2011 at the Teachers Union of Ireland congress in the Brandon Conference Centre, Tralee Co, Kerry. Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus
As ordinary teachers get set for summer term this week, a fight in their name is going on at teacher conferences in Kilkenny and Wexford. At the Easter gatherings, teachers will find themselves either defending their union or, like St Peter, thrice denying their masters.
How representative are these affairs, where a small minority of the teaching corps gathers to pick bones with the Minister for Education and to pitch issues at the media? Looking at the executive top table, they are not that representative at all. When we think of teachers we tend to think of women under 35, not a demographic often spotted on the dais.
In the past, congress often focused on issues related to older teachers; pensions were always a hot topic. Many attendees were retired teachers whose priorities bore no immediate relevance to the majority in the classroom.
It’s one of the challenges facing teacher union leadership: the very different needs of their members at different stages.
Newly-qualified teachers care about getting a job. Newly employed teachers tend to focus on educational issues such as in-service training. Mid-career teachers often have families and so pay and conditions loom large. Older teachers are starting to focus on retirement. It’s hard for a union to cover all bases and still communicate a message simple enough to digest.
Conference itself always presents a wide array of issues, everything from student mental health to pay cuts. Invariably, it is the conflict that makes the headlines: the moment when a livid delegate pounds the lectern, condemns the Minister and bays for industrial action. As a result, the teacher conferences have a reputation for being moanfests. There’s more to conference than giving out, but scraps make good copy.
Who votes for action?
Another PR challenge for the unions is the relatively low turn-out in ballots on industrial action. The primary teachers’ union, the INTO, reported a 65 per cent turnout in both the Haddington Road and Croke Park ballots on pay and conditions. It’s no worse than your average general election turnout, but when it’s liable to lead to the picket line, you’d imagine all members would be exercised one way or the other.
ASTI, one of the two post-primary teacher unions, had a 64 per cent turn out for the Haddington Road proposals, but in the most recent ballot on industrial action against the Junior Cycle framework, only 45 per cent of members returned a vote.