Teachers vote for action but leaders opt for talks

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Members of the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) have voted by a massive 91% in favour of industrial action up to and including strike action if the government moves to cut their pay via legislation.  This huge vote is a clear statement by the union’s members that No means No, that their rejection of the so-called ‘Croke Park extension’ deal must be respected by both government and the union’s leadership and that they are ready and willing to take action to prevent the imposition of paycuts.

Members of the other 2 main teacher unions – TUI and ASTI – are currently balloting on the same motion and the results of their ballots will be announced early next week.  All 3 unions have agreed that the industrial action will, if necessary, be taken in co-operation with one another.

Unfortunately, even before the result of the ballot had been announced the Central Executive Committee of the INTO had announced that it had accepted an invitation from the Labour Relations Commission to attend talks.  The Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) has also agreed to attend talks while the Central Executive Committee of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) has yet to make a decision on whether to attend (as of Friday night).

Collective solidarity

It is unfortunate that the union leadership has taken this position.  The union membership has spoken clearly both in their rejection of the original proposals and in their endorsement of the call for industrial action.  For the first time in nearly 30 years an awakening of a sense of solidarity and the collective ability to stand up for ourselves has begun to emerge.  The sight of that solidarity and collective action is one which should put the frighteners on government and should make them backtrack on their threat to cut pay.

Unfortunately though, many trade union officials and leaders seem to be just as scared of the sight of members organising and realising their strength.  The general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, David Begg, described trade unionists who said ‘No more cuts’ as being “unrealistic” in an RTE radio recently.  In that same interview he appealed to both unions and government not to do anything that would ‘plunge the country into serious industrial action’.  He compared the possibility of workers taking industrial action as being “like the toothpaste in the tube.  Once you squeeze it out, it’s quite difficult to get it back in again”.

Begg appears to have forgotten that, on his salary of €130,000 per year – paid by dues taken out of the wages of workers most of whom earn only a fraction of that – he is supposed to represent workers, not tell them to be ‘realistic’.  No doubt over the next few months he will have the cheek to turn up at events celebrating the centenary of the 1913 lockout.  Where would the trade union movement be today if in 1913 Larkin and his fellow union leaders had told the tramworkers and labourers of Dublin that they should be ‘realistic’ and not plunge the city into the ‘chaos of industrial action.’

‘Tweaking’

It is because this attitude from Begg is shared by a large section of the trade union leadership that the last few weeks have seen them do all that they can to ‘tweak’ the Croke Park paycuts and to try to find a way to sell them to union members.  At least the teacher unions held a ballot of members.  It is unfortunate that they feel that they should disrespect the mandate they’ve been given by going back to talks.  When the ballot was first announced I wrote “It would be a mistake, however, for union members to trust that officials who gladly went into talks a couple of months ago to ‘negotiate’ a paycut for members are now ready to lead a fight against those same cuts.  (see http://www.wsm.ie/c/teachers-unions-croke-park-strike-vote).

But that fight must be built.  And it is union members – who have voted in large numbers for it – who must take charge and ownership of that fight and build it painstakingly in every branch and district in the country.  To borrow Begg’s stupid analogy – the toothpaste of solidarity and collective strength is out of the tube.  Let’s not let anyone force it back in.

Words: Gregor Kerr (Chair District 14 INTO – personal capacity)

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