A man on a diplomatic mission

 

John White has quietly built order out of chaos in his five years at the top of the ASTI. As general secretary, he has had to draw on all his diplomatic skills to steward the union to this place of relative calm. But are stormy waters ahead as we face up to recession, asks LOUIS HOLDEN?

SINCE TAKING up the role of general secretary of the ASTI in 2005, John White has done the impossible; he has kept the peace. The 100-year-old teachers’ union has changed drastically in the last two decades, and those changes have caused painful rifts and public disarray. However, under the soft-spoken and measured leadership of the former secondary school teacher, the ASTI has regained its composure.

“Historically, the ASTI was more of a professional association than a union,” says one observer. “But as the religious orders began to retreat from the schools where ASTI members taught, they no longer had the luxury of conservatism. They had to start battling for their rights along with the other unions. This has been a hard road for the ASTI and John White is the only man who could have held the conservative right and the radical left together over the last five years.”

White doesn’t do tantrums. He thinks before he speaks. According to colleagues he reads books at home in the morning while others sit in rush-hour traffic. “He is unperturbable,” says one.

Despite 37 years of involvement with the ASTI, most discussion of White’s contribution to the union begins with the bitter brawl from which he emerged into leadership. In the first few years of this decade, the ASTI was beset with conflict: from within, in the form of divisive power struggles between high-profile members, and from without as a result of its messy and unpopular industrial actions and public spats with parents’ associations.

John White was the right man, in the right place, at the right time, says an education insider. “If you compare the ASTI in 2000 to the ASTI today, you’d have to admit that someone has done a remarkable job. Ugly scenes on national TV were the order of the day less than 10 years ago. That’s all finished now. White has taken the union out of the media, in a positive way.”

White has succeeded in taking the heat out of the ASTI, but not everyone welcomes the drop in temperature. More strident voices in the ASTI hope for a leader who attacks directly on issues such as pay and conditions.

There are also those who would like to come out from the shadow of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO).

“John Carr of the INTO is a larger than life presence. He works the political angle very well and the media flock to him,” says one observer. “White, on the other hand, is not a political animal. He hasn’t managed to carve out a high media profile for himself. But that’s no bad thing. He has focused on keeping the membership happy.”

That’s a daunting task for an ASTI leader. ASTI members demonstrated their displeasure at the behaviour of the top brass when, between 2000 and 2003, membership fell by almost 1,000, compared to a 2,000-member rise in TUI membership over the same period. White has quietly reversed that trend, and at 18,000 members the ASTI is now stronger than ever.

White, a Kilkenny man, trained to be a teacher in London and taught there for a number of years. It was there that he met his wife, a fellow teacher, who had left Ireland to find work in the midst of the teachers’ strikes of 1969 and 1971. When White returned he took up a teaching position in De La Salle College, Dundalk, where he taught for 20 years.

During this period he became increasingly involved in the ASTI, and served as president in 1986.

John White is deeply concerned with education, say those close to him.

While most regard this as his strength, others would like him to demonstrate more passion for the fundamentals of labour representation: pay and conditions. Herein lies the conflict for the union, says one education academic.

“Teachers unions in other countries tend to focus on the traditional work of the union: fighting for workers’ rights. In Ireland, they walk a line between union and professional body. They have much more of an interest in – and say in – how the education system works for all stakeholders, not just the teachers themselves.”

That message is all-important in 2009. There’s little sympathy for public sector disquiet and teaching jobs are the envy of many private-sector workers. Teachers who strike for better conditions in the classroom may have the students in mind, but if that point is lost on an angry private sector their claims won’t gain much traction. The trick is to keep the media and the public focused on the students, rather than the teachers. Media image matters when you can’t relax in your local pub anymore.

“I’ve been staying away from my local lately,” says one rueful ASTI member. “I can’t take the abuse from people. Everyone thinks that teachers should be getting down on their knees and thanking the Government for a job, rather than continuing the campaign to make things better for students in the classroom. The recession has squashed the debate – we’re fighting for education but people think we’re fighting for more money. It’s at times like these that you need your union to put on a good show. We can’t slip into the shadows and leave schools at the mercy of the economy, but we can’t appear to be looking after our own ends when there’s so little to go around.”

John White may not be a flash media operator, but he happens to project the right persona for a time like this. His measured, gentlemanly approach is just the job to convince a touchy public that teachers are not on the make, says one union official.

“John is a diplomat. He’s had the unenviable task of keeping a lot of disparate people and opinions in check over the past five years. In the media, he comes across as reasonable and considered. That’s exactly what the union has needed for the last five years and what the public wants to hear now.”

Once again, White is in the right place at the right time, but his powers will be tested over the coming months, in the opinion of one colleague. “This is a time for level heads. People feel a sense of personal affront about the effects of the budgets on their salaries. It is spilling over into how they feel about their jobs. We’re heading into rough waters and it will test John’s stewardship. He has calmed the radical elements in the union but they’re still there. They’ve been sleeping dogs for a while but the new circumstances may cause old hurts to resurface.”

HEALING THE RIFTS

When Charlie Lennon exited the position of ASTI general secretary in 2003, the union was at a very low ebb, with vicious in-fighting and a very public struggle between conservative and radical elements. White has succeeded in holding the disparate elements in check and calming the discourse at the ASTI

GOOD PR

White’s obvious interest in educational matters and his tantrum-free relations with the media have helped to project a more mature image for the union.

REACHING OUT TO OTHER UNIONS

Relations between the ASTI, TUI and INTO have never been better, although a unification of the three is still not on the cards.

DEALING WITH THE DEPARTMENT

White is credited with building a “spirit of partnership” between his union and the Department of Education and Science.

BRINGING BACK MEMBERS

Over the course of his leadership, membership of the union has risen by 2,000 to its highest level to date – 18,000 members.

RAISING THE ISSUES

Despite his mild-mannered demeanour, White has put forward some forthright views on the failure of neo-liberalism, the dumbing down of the Leaving Cert and socially-divisive enrolment policies in fee-paying schools.