How the teachers struck out

 

Getting your message out and putting the correct "spin" on it are part of the way wars, elections and conflicts are fought today. When a political decision is necessary to end a dispute or conflict, then public opinion becomes central.

In elections, PR is so important that it is "spin-doctors" who effectively run the campaigns. In industrial disputes, the PR strategy is important to winning. The picket line used to be a weapon, a way of hitting employers practically; now it is more of a photo opportunity.

The ASTI, it would now appear, has lost in this crucial arena of conflict. "In any dispute, the fight for public opinion is all important. Ministers today have much better press and information resources - and it must be worrying for the ASTI that the teachers are not winning the public-relations battle." That's what a former Minister for Education, Gemma Hussey, wrote in this newspaper last week.

So why have the teachers done so badly in the media? Why has there been not a single editorial in the national media supporting the teachers' action? Why have the media been full of parents, and even students, calling for the ASTI to end the dispute? Why are these voices not blaming the Government?

It's not that the teachers' union doesn't care about its media image. The ASTI had prepared the ground carefully, and appeared to be fully aware of the importance of public opinion. The union organised and funded television advertisements extolling the profession of teachers: well trained, highly qualified people doing a socially important job.

The ASTI leadership also clearly believed the public were supportive of teachers and would support them. An Irish Times poll last spring even suggested as much. So what went wrong?

First, there was never any clear public indication as to how the teachers arrived at a 30 per cent pay claim. If the reaction on phone-in programmes was any indication, the public were confused. While they agreed the teachers did an important job, that did not necessarily translate into support for such a massive pay hike.

There was also no indication what, if anything, the teachers were willing to give in return. An editorial in The Irish Times, back in October, probably caught the public's ambivalent attitude towards the ASTI dispute: "The practical impact of this on parents, on family life and, not least, on the education of our young people will be severe. Many members of the public may feel some sympathy towards the ASTI case. Indeed, most fair-minded people want to ensure that our highly skilled teaching corps is well rewarded . . . . "For all that, many parents are entitled to question if the ASTI strategy is the right one."

If its members are right, the problem for the ASTI is that the teachers in the other two unions are wrong. Why is 30 per cent so important for one group of teachers but not another? This apparent split seriously confused the message.

The other issue was status. Teachers on radio and television not only talked of how their status had fallen, but also of how they were earning less money than those they had sat beside when at university.

Every trade unionist would agree that there is usually more to a dispute than the stated reason for the strike, but with the teachers the reasons were just too many.

PR is not a substitute for industrial relations. A PR person can only communicate an effective message if there is an effective message to communicate. And if there is a message, it should be delivered with discipline. With the teachers, it seemed at times as if every union member was running a personal campaign: writing letters to the editors, ringing Joe Duffy or finding their way into the audience of Questions & Answers. All had legitimate grievances to communicate, but often not the same reasons for being in dispute.

In the face of this confused claim, the media turned to others involved: parents and students. As never before, students were heard on radio, seen on television, pictured in newspaper photographs. And with all those individual voices being heard, the post-primary parents' bodies were practically challenged by the media to take a stand: "Parents' group lacks clout in schools dispute", proclaimed one headline; "New pressure on ASTI as parents think of marching", suggested another. And march they did. Parents challenged the teachers, marched and protested. Then, in the face of what appeared to be media hostility, the teachers decided not to give in to the demand to allow Leaving Certificate students to be taught.

When the predictable angry reaction followed, the union's general secretary, Charlie Lennon, argued that people always suffer in industrial disputes and, anyway, exams are not the be-all-and-end-all of education, that the other years of education are equally important.

That point might have been applauded at an education conference, but not in the middle of a dispute with no sign of an end. It conveyed the wrong message, one of lack of concern for students. Although the analogy is hardly exact, many people recalled that the striking nurses did supply emergency cover.

On November 27th an editorial in this newspaper said it was "the ASTI rather than the Government which is feeling the heat . . . . The union's industrial action, which it hoped would dominate public affairs, has been pushed down the agenda by the rash of other disputes. And there is no sign that the Government's resolve has been in any sense weakened by the ASTI's action."

As public opinion fell ever-further away, the other teacher unions were securing deals for themselves. To give the ASTI what it wants now would endanger the Partnership for Prosperity and Fairness - without any benefit for the Government in terms of public support.

Michael Foley is a lecturer in journalism at the Dublin Institute of Technology and a media commentator. He was also, for some years, Irish Times education correspondent and then the paper's media correspondent.