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Classroom assistants strike rally – Lions led by Donkeys

JM Thorn

2 October 2007

A support rally for striking classrooms assistant was held on Belfast on Wednesday (26 September).  Around six hundred people, the bulk of which were female classroom assistants, marched from the City Hall to Custom House Square where they were addressed by number of speakers.  Although classroom assistants are represented by four unions (Nipsa, Unison, GMB and the T&GWU), only Nipsa members were on strike. The march and rally was therefore an overwhelmingly Nipsa event in terms of composition and platform speakers.  The division between the unions was also an underlying theme of the speeches made from the platform. 

First up was Alison Miller, who was leading the negotiations for NIPSA.  She said that classroom assistants were merely looking for fair treatment and justice.  Alison said that the employers, the Education Boards and Department of Education, were fully aware of the issues that needed to be addressed to resolve the dispute.  But rather than address these they were putting obstacles in the way of a settlement.  While there were talks ongoing, she had no optimism that they would reach a satisfactory conclusion.  Alison said that Nipsa would keep its members fully informed of developments, and that people should not be mislead or distracted by what appeared in the media.  She then clarified what had happened at the talks the previous evening.  These came in response to a call from the education minister Catriona Ruane for a resolution. However, at that meeting board officials informed unions that they had had no contact with the minister and no authorisation to make any new offers.  Allison said that, while the union was keen engage in further negotiations, it had no hopes of speedy resolution.  She concluded by stating that Nipsa would not accept an erosion of the terms and conditions of classroom assistants.  She vowed that the conduct of the strike would be in the hands of members and that there would be “no back room deals”, adding that if striking classroom assistants maintained their resolve “we will win this battle”. 

The second speaker was Cecilia Mullen, a classroom assistant from Coleraine.  She briefly went into the work of the classroom assistants, describing how the demands on them had increased over the years. She said that their job required skills and qualifications but this was not being recognised by employers.  Cecelia claimed that classroom assistants were being stigmatised and deliberately separated from teaching staff.  In some schools they were not allowed to use staff rooms.  She said that the current proposals from employers would link them to clerical rather than teaching staff.  These inequities and inconsistencies had to be addressed.

Nipsa general secretary John Corey started of by commending the strikers.  He told them that by going on strike they had taken a major step in securing their future in the education system.  John said the classroom assistants were the most determined group of strikers he had ever come across and that they had the 100 per cent backing of Nipsa.  John argued that in going on strike they were standing up not only for themselves but also for the children that depended upon them.  Like the earlier Nipsa speaker he asserted that members would decide the conduct of the strike and that there would be “no deals behind closed doors”.  The Nipsa secretary said that the employers were aware of the causes of the dispute and how to resolve it, so there was no need for endless negotiations.  He claimed that Nipsa would accept no compromise on working conditions, and that the one-day strike was the start of a campaign of industrial action that would only end when an acceptable offer is made.  If the employers did not concede on the key issues then all out strike would begin on 8th October. 

Peter Bunting of ICTU told the strikers that they had support from other groups of workers and the public, and that ICTU would “stand with you and support you as long as it takes”.  There was no indication of the form such support might take. He commended the right-wing populist unionist MLAs Dawn Purvis and Basil McCrea for raising the issue in the Assembly, and challenged the parties to state their position on the dispute rather than hide behind executive responsibility.  Peter concluded by claiming that there were really two sides in dispute – the executive and the unions – and it would be these parties who would have to resolve it.

The final speaker was classroom assistant Jeanette Murdoch.  She said that while classroom assistants had a “heavy heart” at having to go on strike they were “up for the fight”.  Jeanette said that the current management offer was unacceptable and that there could be no compromise on the number of hours worked, the special needs allowance and the recognition of qualifications.  She said that the purpose of job evaluation was to match pay to work, and that classroom assistants were only asking for the same treatment as other workers within the education sector.  Jeanette claimed that the boards were trying to make classroom assistants pay the price for the financial crises they had gotten into.  Like her Nipsa colleague John Corey, she suggested that the strike was only the first step of a campaign.  Jeanette warned classroom assistants to expect the boards to come forward with a new and slightly better offer.  However, this would just be a PR gimmick and an attempt to divide them.  She vowed that Nipsa “would not sell classroom assistants down the river.”   Jeanette concluded by urging classroom assistants to support the union, to stick together and to fight. 

The tenor of this rally was quite positive in terms of the determination of the classroom assistants and the militant rhetoric  from the platform speakers.  However, this could not disguise the fact the unions are divided.  A lot of the rhetoric from Nipsa officials sought to portray themselves as the only union seriously fighting on behalf the class room assistants while the other unions were prepared to sell them out.  No union or individuals were named but the inferences were clear. 

There is certainly some truth in these charges from Nipsa.  Unison was prepared to accept a derisory offer from the education boards back in June.  Both Unison and the T&GWU only balloted for strike action in the wake of the announcement of strikes by Nipsa.  They tried to get Wednesday’s strike called off ‘in the interests of unity’. 

There is no doubt that the whole issue has been marked by unions, well known for behind the scenes deals, holding back from action and backstabbing Nipsa.  The worst offender in this was Eamonn Coy of the GMB, who denounced the strikers, and spuriously claimed that a favourable settlement was within reach.  Such manoeuvrings by these unions can only weaken the cause of the classroom assistants.  However, we shouldn’t be blinded to the poor record of Nipsa just because it is sounding militant over classroom assistants. In a range of areas across the public sector in recent years, most notably the Water Service, it has failed to mount a defence of its members under threat from privatisation. What is completely absent from the campaign so far is any strategy for success.  Despite the determination of the classroom assistants, no direct approach has been made to the members of other unions asking them to oppose the action of their bureaucracy or to come out in support. The union leaderships are polite to each other and use anti-union laws as cover, never asking for real support on the grounds that such a call is illegal.  As a result the majority of schools remain open and the teachers unions are allowed to remain non-committedly on the sidelines. 

Another weakness of the rally was the support expressed for the Assembly and the executive.  Despite the executive, Sinn Fein education minister Caitriona Ruane in particular, doing everything in their power to defeat the struggle by classroom assistants, trade union officials still believe that it holds the key to a just settlement.  It worth noting the sheer brass neck of Sinn Fein, with a minister opposing the strikers and education spokesperson Paul Butler joining the march in support of them!

The reality is that the hostile position of the executive shows its true nature. All the parties in the executive, including Sinn Fein, have signed up to a thoroughly right wing programme that envisions wholesale attacks on the working class and the public sector.  Privatisation, rates rises, redundancies and water charges are all part of this.  In is clear that at this stage, many workers, encouraged by the trade union leadership, have illusions in the Stormont executive. In part this is because the unions, with no history of struggle, believe that they can justify their existence by hanging around committee rooms and lobbying corrupt politicians. The second strike day on October 2nd was dominated by an employers offer of a lump sum that would not in any way compensate for the worsening of wages and conditions that is proposed by employers. The various unions are in negotiation around this issue.

The classroom assistants strike forces workers into struggle and helps to dispel illusions in the major parties and their own union leaderships.  It is also important the workers don’t see such struggles as isolated events but part of a broad offensive against them; and that a united campaign is needed to challenge it.  The most immediate task is the creation of united trade union campaign for the defence of the public sector.  Such a campaign will be built not only in opposition to the government but also the current trade union leadership.  Socialist and trade union activists should support the classroom assistants’ dispute and advance the broader agenda of a more general fightback. 


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