On 4 February 2020, hundreds of second-level schools closed as a result of a strike by 19,000 teachers, members of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI). These teachers voted by a massive 92% to 8% to engage in a campaign of industrial action. The issue driving teachers to strike is a simple one: people doing exactly the same job should get the same pay. Yet this principle is violated throughout the public sector as a result of savage cuts imposed by the Fine Gael / Labour government that formed on 25 February 2011.
A two-tier pay system was put in place that punishes those who took up jobs from 1 January 2011 onwards, as a 10% reduction in basic pay was imposed on new teachers and all new entrants were obliged to start on the bottom point of the pay scale regardless of previous teaching experience. Additional cuts to certain allowances meant new teachers lost up to 15% of their pay. The pay gap in starting salaries between post-2011 teachers and those employed before 2011 is over €4,000 a year even when not taking into account the fact that before 2011 teachers started on the third point of their scale.
Unity among teacher unions is the way to win pay-parity
There are three teaching unions in Ireland, the TUI, the ASTI (Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland) and the INTO (Irish National Teachers’ Organisation), while the latter focus on primary education, they too have been trying to achieve pay parity, by taking a court case to the European Court of Justice, claiming discrimination on the grounds of age. This case was lost so now the hope of INTO members will be that their colleagues in second-level schools win their strike and therefore pave the way for all teachers to win back equal pay. The INTO should also now ballot for strike action on the issue.
For the ASTI, the situation is similar, in that these teachers too consider the issue of ending the two-tier pay system an urgent one, the union describing it as a ‘shocking stain’. Unfortunately for teachers as a whole, the ASTI and the TUI have, up to now, not stood together in tackling the issue. The ASTI went into battle on the issue in 2016 and were knocked back, having to retreat with only small gains and having incurred punitive costs. The government imposed penalties on ASTI members for having ‘repudiated’ the public service agreement and these penalties amount to some €15million in lost increments and other benefits.
Naturally, ASTI members have a great deal of bitterness about this situation but Independent Left urge them to direct that bitterness at the government not their colleagues. Now is the perfect time to push forward on this issue. This is not so much because of the election – although there is no harm at all getting candidates to commit to restoring pay parity – but more because right throughout the public sector there is a growing mood for action on this issue. The nurses who struck in February 2019 made some gains and, perhaps more importantly, the government was sufficiently worried that they didn’t try to repeat the punishment of imposing penalties. They know public sector workers are much closer to a major revolt across the board than they were in 2016. Since the ASTI took the lead on the issue, three years of rising rents, medical costs, child care costs and a general increase in stressful living has changed the mood of other workers.
ASTI members should be proud of being the first into this battle and welcome the fact that reinforcements are now joining the cause. Ideally, all three teacher unions should co-ordinate strike action on this issue for the same day. At a minimum, teachers have to respect one another’s picket lines.
The ASTI, TUI and INTO leadership cannot officially call for members not to cross picket lines as it is illegal to do so (highlighting the importance of the demand by Councillor John Lyons, who is standing in Dublin Bay North for General Election 2020, that the 1990 Industrial Relations Act be abolished). Independent Left have no such constraint and as we take inspiration from the lives of James Connolly and Jim Larkin, we appreciate how essential is solidarity and respect for picket lines to winning strikes. Moreover, the ASTI have said:
the union will support any member who does not pass a picket should disciplinary action be threatened or taken against them.
They have also asked members not to undertake any duties performed by TUI members and this alone should be sufficient on health and safety grounds to cause many schools to close, even where the numbers of TUI strikers are small.
Independent Left support the TUI strike on 4 February 2020
Probably, over 400 schools will be closed by the strike of 4 February 2020, including the 260 Education and Training Boards’ schools. This strike is a powerful way to bring the campaign for pay parity forward and regardless of who forms the next government, the new cabinet will inherit real pressure to make concessions.
From the point of view of parents, having to come up with a contingency arrangement for our children is a challenge. But it is very much in our interests to support the teachers. For one, the low pay in the sector is leaving schools short-staffed. Over ninety percent of secondary schools report difficulty filling posts. More generally, education is in desperate need of an injection of funding. And, of course, the demand of the teachers is an entirely fair one.
This is why Independent Left members went to the picket lines on 4 February to show our support for the striking teachers and we encourage parents and the public to do the same at future strikes.
Our education system discriminates against working class communities
Supporting teachers in the struggle to win parity of pay and, indirectly, to improve recruitment and retention rates is just one facet of a radical overhaul of the education system that is needed. As John Lyons highlighted in his election 2020 campaign as candidate in Dublin Bay North, we still have far too many schools under church control. My son goes to one where the principal circulates material against same-sex relationships, material which sees diversity as a plot by the UN to reduce population growth! John Lyons also is drawing attention to the need for meaningful supports to be put in place to allow all children equality of access. Although the government boasts of increase employment for SNAs, the fact that SNA hours have been reduced and the number of children requiring support has increased means the overall service is a long way behind that of 2013, when the Fine Gael – Labour government slashed SNA hours. The recent changes to the resource allocation model of NCSE is a particular disaster for visually impaired children.
Just looking at the school buildings in different parts of the city and your intuition will tell you something is wrong in Irish education. If you stroll past Wesley fee-paying school, for example, you’ll see two resurfaced hockey pitches, two cricket pitches, another for soccer. No less than four for rugby and if you got a glimpse inside you’d see two basketball courts a major hall and a gym. In 2018, Wesley obtained €150,000 from Shane Ross from the Sports Capital Programme to for those resurfaced hockey pitch. And for our kids on Dublin’s north side? Typically they play soccer on tarmac or, as in my son’s school, in a car park.
Research by Gerry Kearns, Professor of Human Geography, Maynooth University allows us to visualise the bias in education in Dublin. As he puts it:
There is a wedge of privilege extending southwards from the city centre. If we map the proportion of people going from school to college, the districts with the schools most likely to send students to college form a coherent band on the southside (Dublin postal districts 2, 4, 6, 6W and 14, and the local authority of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown).
This discrimination can be overcome, but not without a challenge to decades of neglect for our schools from Fine Gael and Fianna Fail and their coalition partners.