ASTI leadership faces crisis over disengaged majority

Failure to modernise internal structures has led to apathy and inability to connect

Acting Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Acting Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

 

Just over a decade ago, the Association of Secondary Teachers in 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 if anything has really changed. Internal issues continue to dog the union. ASTI staff members have lodged a formal complaint against their union over the alleged mistreatment of staff, including cyberbullying, and a failure to tackle serious allegations and harassment.

There are also questions over the union’s leadership, its longer-term strategy and whether its resistance to compromise across a range of fronts really does reflect the views of the majority of ordinary teachers.

The union is now on a collision course with the Government on a range of issues – including pay, working hours and junior cycle reform – which could lead to school closures, strikes in the autumn and teachers forfeiting significant sums of money.

Many teachers, especially those who are newly qualified, are angry at how pay and spending cuts have hit them hard. But resistance to compromise at any cost may hinder rather than help their position in the longer term.

Against this backdrop, the union is hobbled by outdated structural issues which have never been addressed.

Toxic atmosphere

Pat King

When he stood down as president last December, the union’s president asked its standing committee to host a function to mark his retirement. He thanked the president, but politely declined.

King had been at the centre of personalised attacks from various quarters within the union for attempting to strike a deal over junior cycle reform and warning of the implications of withdrawing Croke Park hours.

He is understood to have provided the leadership with more than 50 documented cases of abusive, insulting and vulgar abuse by identifiable members. No action followed to protect staff, he argued.

Then there is the issue of whether key issues are being fully debated or communicated to the wider membership.

In the case of the Lansdowne Road Agreement, ASTI members voted last year by 74 per cent to 26 per cent to reject it. But there was an extraordinarily low turnout: just 31.5 per cent.

King warned in an internal memo that the union’s 17,500 members had not been fully informed about the implications of their decision.

There were similar issues when the union secured major concessions on junior cycle reform. Even though the union won almost all the points in dispute, its standing committee did not give any direction on how to vote. In the end, just 38 per cent of members cast a ballot to reject the proposals.

Subsequent research by the union found widespread confusion within branches over the issues members were asked to vote on. The union’s antiquated structures have hardly helped. Moves to modernise them have gone nowhere. The average attendance at branch meetings is fewer than 10 people, according to internal research.

‘Old fashioned’

The ASTI also has a unique structure compared with other national organisations. It has a central executive committee – defined as its “supreme governing body” when the national convention is not taking place – which lacks young members. It has more than doubled over recent decades to about 180 members.

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

What is dispiriting for many in the profession is that the public perception of teachers contrasts so sharply with the reality of their working lives.

The majority of those attracted to teaching are driven by a desire to make a difference. They are engaged on a daily basis with new methods of teaching and learning, they want to do everything to help students and fulfil their potential.

Too often, its official voice has come across as negative, reactionary and unwilling to change.

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