The decision by Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) members to back industrial action over issues including school safety has put potential school closures on the agenda.
While latest data released by public health authorities indicates that schools are safer than the wider community and are not driving transmission of Covid-19, ASTI members still have concerns.
The ballot result shows members are willing to take industrial action – up to and including strike action – over stricter definitions for what constitute close contacts, guaranteed 24-hour turnaround times for test results, a serial testing programme for schools and allowing hundreds of teachers in high-risk categories to work from home. Members also backed an equal pay demand for all teachers hired since 2010.
The union says it is willing to take action if these measures are not put in place by this Friday.
There is little or no chance this will happen within the next 48 hours.
The unresolved fight for equal pay, for example, has been taking place for almost a decade.
Issues such as contact tracing definitions are determined by public health experts – not trade unions – and health authorities are not in a position to guarantee turnaround times for tests given the dynamic nature of the spread of Covid-19.
So, if many issues on the ballot paper can’t be delivered, what chance is there of industrial action or school closures?
The reality is the ASTI will be reluctant to take on the kind of industrial action that will shut down hundreds of schools, unless it has the support of other teachers’ unions.
The last time it embarked on a solo strike in 2016/17 it ended up isolated, divided and with little support from the rest of the trade union movement or wider public.
So, what happens next? Schools are set to reopen as normal after the mid-term break. The union’s leadership is set to take stock of the vote and will likely warn of industrial action. Strike action, if it materialises, seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.
The decision to ballot for industrial action has drawn criticism from both within and outside the ASTI.
Critics see the move as yet another example of the union’s hardline leadership seeking conflict rather than compromise.
Some also see the move as irresponsible in a climate where everyone is being asked to pull together for the greater good, while others point out that any disruption could harm students who have already lost considerable teaching time.
However, supporters of the ASTI’s stance say the union is simply standing up for the rights of teachers.
Many argue that they don’t want to close schools, but are entitled to take democratic steps to ensure their workplaces are safe. School closures may not happen, they say, but represent a bargaining chip in seeking safer classrooms.
Wednesday’s ballot result also has industrial relations implications.
In addition to safety measures, members backed a demand for equal pay for thousands of teachers who have joined since 2010.
A dispute involving teachers in the coming weeks would come at a delicate time for the Government which is involved in preliminary “talks about talks” with public service unions on a new overall pay deal for 340,000 State employees.
A strike by second-level teachers would also leave the Government with the question of whether to impose financial sanctions on members of the union for repudiating the existing accord.
In 2016, members of the ASTI lost out on benefits worth about €15 million – largely due to delays to the payment of increments – as a result of going on strike.