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Teacher’s conferences dominated by ‘Benchmarking’ fallout

John McAnulty

30 March 2008

 “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” That quote was used more than once at the INTO conference in Kilkenny.  What wasn’t clear was who was fooling who.  Was it the government, represented by Minister Mary Hanafin, fooling the union? Or was it the bureaucracy fooling the membership?  On the major issue in dispute (class sizes) and the related issue of benchmarking the union bureaucracy was able to throw dust in the faces of many delegates.  However the process dominating the conference was the slow closure of the jaws of social partnership around the necks of teachers and it would have been surprising is some teachers had not concluded that their leadership had led them up the garden path.

The leadership made their strongest case in relation to government promises on class sizes. It was a year ago, in the run-up to election, that Hanafin spoke at the congress and gave an unambiguous promise that class sizes would be reduced. The promise was torn up as soon as the election was over.  INTO Secretary John Carr, in a powerful speech, quoted the minister’s speech back to her and accused her of betrayal. The main congress motion, backed by the leadership, threatened industrial action if class sizes were not reduced. The comments did not acknowledge the serious setback that INTO suffered.  The leadership had believed that they could live in a no-strike agreement and apply pressure outside the agreement through traditional clientelist methods – indeed they had built a very large lobbying movement in the constituencies around the issue of class sizes. The lack of response from the minister showed how weak a weapon this was. 

The minister was not slow in hitting back, immediately referring to the fine print of social partnership.  The government, she intoned, were still committed to reducing class sizes, but, like all the other elements of the programme for government, it was subject to budgetary constraints. The compulsory elements of social partnership apply only to the workers – a central fact that the bureaucracy like to ignore. She immediately followed up with another central plank often ignored – the fact that the partnership agreement is a no-strike agreement and a strike would mean financial penalties imposed on the teachers concerned.

A number of delegates remembered the promises of the minister.  They also remembered that it was the leadership whom had bought those promises hook line and sinker despite the reservations from the floor, to such an extent that there had been protests at John Carr’s too fulsome endorsement of Mary Hanafin.

A much sharper division arose over the question of benchmarking.  The leadership were to the fore in denouncing the outcome of a zero pay increase for classroom teachers, while at the same time claiming a victory in the award to principals and vice-principals. The benchmarking process was not fit for purpose, and in the main resolution they called on themselves to “consider the implications of using benchmarking in the future as a means of determining salary”.  Other resolutions made it clear what they were reconsidering – an improved benchmarking process that would truly consider the importance of teachers and reward them accordingly. Motion 235, proposed by the leadership, was a list of technical demands to change the process so that it awarded increases above inflation and did not seek further productivity increases. Motion 369, again from the leadership, “views with concern” the use of pension rights to discount pay and call for negotiators to defend existing pension rights.  In the context of benchmarking these are strictly fantasy resolutions and indicate the determination of the executive to remain inside social partnership and zero interest in standing outside or smashing the process.

This line led to the most savage criticism that the bureaucracy had faced for some time. They were reminded of their role in promoting social partnership and benchmarking and facing down opposition within the union.  Many delegates pointed out angrily that their wages had been discounted against their pensions and that this process of discounting could only lead to pay cuts and a race to the bottom, as public service pay was compared to a private sector that was itself under savage attack from employers.  Some went further, indicating that the purpose and mechanisms of benchmarking were designed to depress wages from the get-go, and that the bureaucracy had willingly accepted this in return for imagined influence at the top table of government.

Overall the conference marked a shift to the left.  The bureaucracy, who had supported benchmarking and social partnership, were now protecting their position by calling for an improved social partnership.  The small forces of the organised left, who had retreated to a position of calling for better social partnership, now had the courage to launch a principled critique of partnership.

The revolt was seen off.  In part this was because the bureaucracy of all the teaching unions had prepared their positions well in advance, issuing statements full of bluster and bombast before the conferences to establish themselves as part of the opposition. In part it is because the battle to stymie criticism was fought in the standing orders committee, with resolutions ruled out of order and also the battle was fought from the chair, discussion at the INTO conference so heavily curtailed that the last six opponents were given a minute each, with a stooge in the hall moving a procedural motion to close the discussion.  Above all the widespread anger and criticism has yet to translate into a political opposition.  There was loud applause for the criticisms of benchmarking, but it has yet to translate into a generalised understanding that social partnership has to be overthrown or even how that may be possible – there is a long history of the bureaucracy scabbing, crushing protest to establish that there is no ‘outside’ to partnership.

The pattern at the INTO conference was repeated across the teachers conferences. Hostility towards the minister, bluster from the platforms, anger from the floor, with some directed towards the bureaucracy itself, a number of successful resolutions calling for strike action, with most workers unaware that generalised strike action would blow the bureaucracy out of social partnership and is something they will fight tooth and nail to prevent.

The contradictions will grow more acute. If ‘partnership’ had any meaning then it would express itself in education.  The government want a knowledge economy. The teachers have concerns about wages and conditions, the parents want a modern and effective system. Partnership was never able to square this very simple circle. The government was never able to tax the multi-nationals enough to generate the revenue needed. The education system was able to produce many of the workers needed, but with a long tail of those failed by the system. Teachers’ pay and conditions were frozen, then linked to increased productivity, now frozen again with the prospect of going backwards. Parents face the second-largest class sizes in Europe, with substantial elements of the running costs of schools being met directly by parents and savage struggles to get into ‘respectable’ schools where the parents are well enough off to support the school.

The Irish bourgeoisie were never able to produce a rational education system, a fact illustrated by revelations at the start of the conference season that the Catholic church, no longer strong enough to control the primary system directly, are working behind the scenes to ensure a veto on teachers appointments, to ensure that priests can come and go at will and that the hierarchy will have the power of inspection.  What is the likelihood that Fianna Fail will oppose them? Or that they will be able to meet the needs of parents, Teachers and pupils in a time of economic decline, having failed that task during the boom years?

Across the public service and the working class as a whole there is only one question.  Is there an opposition to capitalism and to the sellouts of the bureaucracy?  The answer from the Easter conferences is – not yet, but the possibility of an opposition is a real one.


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