ASTI brings end to futile campaign that divided union
Analysis: Anger over new entrants’ pay may lead resumption in hostilities next autumn
ASTI members at the union meeting in Citywest Hotel. Many members were angry with what they saw as a hard-line leadership focused on conflict rather than compromise. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
The vote by the country’s biggest secondary teachers’ union to suspend its long-running industrial action marks the end of a futile campaign which served to hurt members, disrupt students and divide the union.
It also marks a victory for moderate voices within the union who have “taken back control” of the union against what they saw as a hard-line leadership focused on conflict rather than compromise.
The result means thousands of members are set to receive pay increases which had been frozen due to the union’s “repudiation” of the Lansdowne Road pay deal.
However, with anger bubbling over a new pay deal – which fails to provide pay parity for new entrants – there is every chance of a resumption in hostilities in the autumn.
For now, though, the union is coming to terms with the effects of what has been a damaging and divisive campaign.
The roots of how the union found itself so isolated go back to last year when the union ceased working additional “Croke Park” hours, in protest over the Government’s delays in tackling the two-tier pay system.
This, in turn, resulted in the Government imposing financial penalties, which has created a pay gap between its members and those in the other second-level union, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland.
The irony is that the union was warned by its former general secretary as far back as 2015 that its industrial relations strategy would end up leading them in precisely this direction.
Before his departure, the then general secretary Pat King warned that the union would be left 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 ended up as the only public sector union outside the partnership agreement.
Quite apart from the impact of financial losses on members, it has also divided and weakened the union.
More than 1,200 members have left the union in recent months. About half of these left in the last six months.
Membership in some dual-union schools has fallen dramatically, while the TUI now has members in most voluntary secondary schools, which are traditionally ASTI-strongholds.
Frustration, which was been growing behind the scenes for months, burst into the open at an acrimonious meeting of the union’s annual convention in April where it was criticised as the “North Korea of the trade union movement” and leading a “zombie campaign”.
Saturday’s special convention to debate the ASTI’s industrial relations strategy was, in many respects, an arm-wrestle over control of the union between moderates and hard-liners.
The two-to-one margin of the vote in favour of suspending industrial action was decisive.
It remains to be seen, however, whether this marks a longer-term shift of power dynamics within the union.
A separate ballot on the new draft public service agreement, which was agreed last week, is due to be held in the autumn.
The Department of Education has warned that penalties could be reimposed if the ASTI recommences industrial action in the future.
Given that deal does not provide pay parity for new entrants – a red-line issue for the teachers’ unions – there may well be fresh disputes on the horizon.
Much will depend on what plays out in any talks between now and the autumn.
If the equal pay for teachers is not satisfactorily addressed by the Government, it is highly likely that the three teachers’ unions will hold the line on the issue.
As a result, Saturday’s vote may well represent a lull in hostilities rather than a new era of industrial peace.