Poaching row raises tensions between teachers’ unions

Analysis: Some ASTI branches lost up to a third of their members in last year’s dispute

Richard Terry, ASTI member, said a third of members left his local branch during the union's dispute last year. Photograoh: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Richard Terry, ASTI member, said a third of members left his local branch during the union's dispute last year. Photograoh: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision


Richard Terry began to worry for the future of his local branch of the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI), in Fermoy, Co Cork, last year.

It was there, 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”.

However, within a six-month period – between January and July – the branch lost about a third of its members.

Members were losing thousands of euro in lost increments and pay restoration because of the union’s “repudiation” of the public sector pay deal in place at the time.

It also meant new entrants were locked out of significant pay increases and faced a much longer wait to secure permanent contracts.

“You had all sorts leaving: long-standing members and young teachers who had joined recently,” says Terry.

“As far as they were concerned, they either disagreed with the leadership or wanted access to pay increments or stable jobs.”

The Co Cork branch wasn’t alone. Official figures seen by The Irish Times show the union lost about 1,000 members across voluntary secondary and community and comprehensive schools during this period.

Controversially, however, its rival secondary school union, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) – which was inside the pay deal – saw its numbers swell by at least 1,200 over the same period.

Benefit significantly

Those who signed up with the TUI stood to benefit significantly from pay increases that were being withheld from ASTI members.

The question of whether members left one union to join the other, however, has sparked accusations from the ASTI that some of its members were “poached” by the TUI.

This is despite Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) rules that prohibit rival unions recruiting from each other during an industrial dispute.

These allegations, a source of significant tension, have now escalated to a formal investigation by Ictu.

It also has the potential to undermine attempts to present a united front by both unions in their campaigns in support of pay equality.

It is difficult to say based on official figures, however, if the same members who left the ASTI went on to join the TUI.

That is because many non-members in schools may have opted to join the TUI, as there were clear financial incentives to do do.

Anyone who remained a non-member in a voluntary secondary school where ASTI was the main union stood to be 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.

‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’

A key part of Ictu’s investigation is likely to focus on what attempts the TUI made to establish whether new members were members of the ASTI.

Some sources say there was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in many schools; however, senior TUI sources insist the union went “out of its way” to ask teachers signing up whether they were members of another union.

In any case, what is clear is that the landscape of union representation across secondary schools has changed.

Once, TUI membership was largely confined to State – or what used to be known as vocational – schools, now under the patronage of Education and Training Boards (ETBs).

The vast majority of ASTI members were concentrated in voluntary secondary schools, typically those under the patronage of a religious order.

However, official figures show there has now been a 66 per cent increase in the number of TUI members in non-ETB schools.

ASTI members such as Richard Terry, meanwhile, are less interested in a blame-game and are focused on building up the union’s voice.

“Losing a third of our branch was a blow... it reduces our representation at convention. It’s important now to focus on what we can do for our members and what we stand for.”