Trouble ahead as teachers suffer benchmarking blues
1 May 2006
The Irish National teachers Organisation’s national congress at Killarney this Easter was a rather more dramatic affair than most, with a high level of dissatisfaction both with the outcome of ‘sustaining progress’ round of social partnership and also with the union leadership that had promoted it. This was a common theme across all the public service conferences held recently, with the workers facing problems over pay and new productivity demands, over the collapsing infrastructure of public service and the savage rationalisation and privatisation proposals but forward by government and bosses as solutions. As with the other union conferences, INTO delegates remained relatively unaware of the role of their own leadership and the level of class collaboration that social partnership represents. However the union leadership came within a whisker of loosing one key vote and were defeated on another.
The major debate of the conference centred around benchmarking – the productivity and speedup element of recent agreements. The motion, by Tallaght, Dublin North West, Roscommon North and District 15, proposed that in the new social partnership negotiations the union executive should obtain for teachers an immediate pay increase to compensate for cost of living increases, not handcuffed to a further productivity agreement. It also called on the CEC not to accept any productivity proposals for consideration in the negotiations. The debate revealed a new level of impatience from delegates. Their pay had been held back for years while the union bureaucracy offered good times to come – “money in the ATM” was one famous refrain. Then, when a pay increase was agreed, teachers were told not to worry about benchmarking requirements attached to the deal – they were mere formalisms and would have no practical consequence. Now, with their conditions of service substantially worse, they know they have been sold a pig in a poke.
One Dublin delegate made the issue crystal clear: In the past workers had a given level of pay. If inflation or other expenses ate into that level of pay they expected to be compensated by having their pay increased to reflect the changes. Under sustaining progress that was no longer the case. To get a pay increase, even one that just balanced inflation, they would have to continuously work harder and harder. They would be in the Red Queen’s race from “Alice in Wonderland”….. perpetually running to stay in the same spot. In fact the situation is even worse, with government and employers planning to include existing pension provision in the new negotiations – raising the possibility that cost of living increases could include both extra work and pension cuts.
The proposal for breaking from benchmarking, which would also involve breaking from social partnership, caused panic among the leadership. They begged the delegate “not to tie their hands” and warned darkly that a democratic vote in favour of the motion would breach rules concerning their rights to take all measures to advance the rights of members and would lead to them ignoring the conference vote. In the event they squeezed through with a wafer-thin defeat of the resolution.
Much of the rest of the congress was taken up by the endemic crisis in Irish education – a crisis that reflects a general crisis across public service. The ‘Celtic Tiger’ depends absolutely on inward investment from transnational companies and fights to secure that investment by minimal levels of tax for the companies, high taxation of workers, and downward pressure on the wages and conditions of workers. As a result the tax take is not sufficient to build a modern public service. One manifestation of this effect, most dramatic in health services, is of an education service with massive class sizes, decaying buildings, lack of resources for special needs and the growing number of children entering the country who need language support. The absence of funds became clear when the delegates applauded announcements of extra resources from Minister Mary Hanifin, only to realise angrily later that it was the third time she had announced the same minuscule boost in resources.
The bureaucracy were defeated on a motion that proposed a withdrawal of support for inspections – a central issue because publication of school reports is to be the foundation of league tables in a system already marked by a savage division of pupils on grounds of class.
It’s what happened next that was most interesting. Immediately following the vote minister Mary Hanafin announced that failure to co-operate with inspections would lead to suspension of the current phase of payment under benchmarking, because co-operation with inspection was part of the benchmarking agreement. What this means is that the union delegates have agreed to oppose an element of the government offensive but had been unaware that their leadership had signed up to the offensive already! It brings to mind the incredulous response some years ago when members suddenly realised that social partnership agreement over decades had included the removal of the right to take industrial action.
The INTO conference is a microcosm of the dilemma facing public sector workers generally. They are at the forefront of a full-scale offensive on public service privatisation, deregulation, wage cuts and pension cuts are all on the way. The ability of social partnership to put them to sleep is on the wane and there is a growing restlessness and anger. What is missing is the political consciousness of the role of the union bureaucracy and the understanding that to fight the bosses we must fight the bureaucracy.
It is when that understanding becomes more
deeply rooted that we will go beyond episodic rebellions at union conference
to the beginnings of a rank and file movement, reaching across the existing
union structures and allowing the self-organisation of workers independently
of the union bureaucrats.