ASTI revolt: ‘We’re stuck in the doldrums saying no’
Biggest second-level teachers’ union losing members in context of internal divisions
Richard Terry, an ASTI member in the union’s Fermoy branch: “Passive resistance hasn’t been working. It’s time to admit that.” Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
It was here, more than 100 years ago, that the future patriot Thomas MacDonagh helped co-found the union, starting a proud tradition of representing the “ordinary classroom teacher”.
Today, Terry wonders if the branch will still exist soon.
About a third of the members have left in the first four months of the year. Many others are on the cusp of leaving, he says, but are holding their breath to see what follows next.
“Many of us feel that the union isn’t heeding our concerns, that it isn’t representing our voice,” says Terry, a 30-year-old maths and history teacher. “Nor is it making any significant headway with any of the campaigns. We’re stuck in the doldrums, in perpetual revolution. It’s all very Ian Paisley-esque, saying ‘no’ to everything.”
The ASTI is consumed by internal division over its future direction and ongoing disputes over pay, conditions and education reforms.
At least 500 members are understood to have left the union in the first four months of this year; sources say the numbers leaving have accelerated in more recent times.
It is the only public sector union outside the partnership agreement. As a result, members are losing thousands of euro in lost increments and pay restoration due to the union’s ongoing disputes.
The situation is worse for new entrants: they are locked out of significant pay increases and face a much longer wait to secure permanent contracts.
Its long-running dispute over junior cycle reforms also means teachers are barred from engaging in any form of training, even though they are required to teach the new curriculum.
Frustration, which has been bubbling away 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”.
In recent days, a grassroots revolt has led to hundreds of members signing a petition in a bid to hold a special convention and suspend its campaign of industrial action. Their main argument is that union’s focus on conflict rather than compromise is hurting members.
They say they union has dug itself into a hole with only one escape route – abandoning industrial action and taking the benefits linked to the Lansdowne Road pay agreement.
However, claims in some quarters that the union is “haemorrhaging” members nationally do not stack up – at least not yet.
The 500 members who have left represent about 3 per cent of the 18,000-strong membership. In fact, the union’s membership rose slightly last year at a time when many predicted it would lose members.
Some of those leaving are signing up with the Teachers’ Union of Ireland and gaining from increments and access to contracts.
Moving unions during an industrial dispute, however, is prohibited under trade union rules. As a result, there is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in many schools, say some teachers.
(Those who remain as non-union in the 500 or so voluntary secondary schools where the ASTI is the main union are treated in the same way as ASTI members. This is because teachers are not able to accept or reject collective pay agreements on an individual basis.)
The union’s leadership insists it is taking a principled rather than popular stance in favour of protecting teachers and education standards.
At its annual conference earlier this month, its president Ed Byrne painted the union’s conflict as a lonely battle against Government “injustice and mendacity”.
While other unions eventually signed up to the Lansdowne Road Agreement, “like the sea stacks dotted along with west coast of Ireland, we once more stood alone against injustice, inequity and the unethical”.
Byrne has argued, with some justification, that gains made available to the other teaching unions on restoring new-entrant pay were a direct result of the ASTI’s campaign.
He has also hit out at the heavy-handed use of financial emergency legislation to penalise its members for “repudiating” the Lansdowne Road Agreement.
This, however, is cold comfort to many of the union’s most vulnerable members – new entrants – who have felt their impact the most.
While the ASTI is outside the Lansdowne Road agreement, Byrne says it expects to be involved in talks on a successor agreement.
The union will demand that public service pay unions demand equal pay for equal work at these talks. Critics, however, say this position reflects the stance of the two other teachers’ unions covered by the partnership agreement.
With talks over a successor agreement due to begin later this month, a growing number within the ASTI are questioning why the union is continuing to fight against a “dead” agreement.
The grassroots revolt, meanwhile, has prompted a fightback from Byrne, who labelled the move “undemocratic” and an attempt to overturn a ballot of members last January, who voted – by a margin of 52.5 to 47.5 per cent – to continue its campaign of industrial action.
The ASTI now finds itself at an uncertain crossroads: does it continue with its the go-it-alone strategy and risk losing even more members? Or does it row in with other teaching unions and secure the gains on the table?
The coming week will be crucial. The grassroots campaign is expected to announce that it has well over 800 signatures, sufficient to trigger a special convention. Meanwhile, the union’s standing committee meets later this week, and its central executive is due to meet on Saturday.
Back in Fermoy, Terry says he shares many of the union’s concerns over Lansdowne Road and on standards linked to reform of the junior cycle. But he says it is time for a different approach.
“Passive resistance hasn’t been working. It’s time to admit that and approach this in a different way,” he says. “Many teachers feel that we are better off at the table, having some influence, than standing outside shouting up at the windows. Especially when it comes to influencing the implementation of the new junior cycle.”
A failure to acknowledge the views of the wider membership, he says, could have devastating long-term consequences for the union.
“It’s a disaster, really,” he says. “We’ve always been aware of the branch’s significance in the early history of the union . . . That there could, potentially, be no branch to speak of soon is a very, very sorry state of affairs.”