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Lessons of the Teacher’s Strike

There can be no doubt that the teacher’s strike was one of those disputes, like the nurse’s strike in 1999, that has significance way beyond the 16,000 members of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) involved in it.  While most trade union disputes are sectional with only an indirect bearing on other workers this dispute was, and still is, a political matter of interest to every worker in the country.  Why is this?

Just like nurses they were front line workers in a service dear to the hearts of working class people most of whom realised was showing little improvement despite the Celtic Tiger.  Properly paid and motivated teachers are clearly in the interests of all workers and teachers could count on this bedrock of sympathy from the start.  The teachers were explicitly against social partnership and had left the ICTU in order not to be bound by the new Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF). This leadership role in rejecting partnership earned them the vitriolic opposition of the government which promoted a vicious propaganda offensive culminating in them being called ‘terrorists’ by a reactionary parents representative.  The government itself went as far as breaking the law by not paying teachers for their attendance at school while they refused to carry out purely voluntary and unpaid supervisory duties.

In particular they incurred the wrath of the trade union leadership.  A member of the Oireachtas told Pat Cahill of ASTI that ‘your problem is not with us, it is with ICTU, especially Des Geraghty and Senator Joe O’Toole, who see themselves as the architects of the PPF and dare anybody to criticise it.’ ICTU opposition to their demands was a factor common to the nurses’ dispute but the teachers had gone even further by rejecting the PPF and ICTU.

ASTI had lodged a large pay claim of 30% while most propaganda on the left advised large pay claims as the main means of breaking social partnership.  Their dispute was also under the control of the rank and file (a demand which would be top of much of the left’s wish list in terms of workers winning their demands).  The structures of the union were more democratic than most and the opposition had control of the 180 strong national executive. The full time officials had been reined in to support a strategy under the control of the rank and file. They had Charlie Lennon in a box.

In addition they had also decisively rejected benchmarking which had quite properly been understood as a means of destroying existing terms and conditions.  Few were fooled by Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) leader Joe O’Toole’s reference to benchmarking as an ATM machine where teachers could withdraw whatever pay increases they wanted.  Yet despite all this a second question becomes even more insistent.  Why have the teachers lost so far?

Militancy, determination and rank and file control were clearly not enough.  The majority of teachers across the three unions supported ASTI’s demands and those in the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) voted with ASTI against the PPF and benchmarking.  A large number in INTO supported this stand and formed a clear majority across the three unions.

Yet despite this a reason why the strike failed was that the union hierarchy were able to divide teachers and with a vicious government offensive force teachers to retreat in the face of ‘public opinion.’  It would therefore be wrong to see the latter loss of support in the population at large as the key reason for defeat.  This simply reflected the result of prior weaknesses.

While the government and union bosses built a coalition against ASTI, it in turn failed to build its own coalition in support of its demands. For example their strategy on exams amounted to teachers taking full responsibility for the disruption which would be an inevitable outcome of the dispute however they fought it. This was characterised as a PR disaster but again flowed from more fundamental failures.

The government was able to point out that ASTI was alone among the teacher unions in taking action, ignoring the fact that, as we have said, the majority supported ASTI’s demands.  This happened because although ASTI reflected ordinary teachers concerns the TUI and INTO remained firmly under control of the union bureaucrats.  ASTI failed to go over the heads of these leaders to appeal to the rank and file.  The rank and file in these unions was also unable to take the initiative and in fact trailed after maneuvers of the leadership which actually undermined the strike.

This could be seen in the union leaders’ emphasis on benchmarking, which became their key to breaking the strike by encouraging the two other teacher unions to go ahead with their submissions to the benchmarking body. When the leaders of the TUI put forward a strike ballot in favour of bringing forward benchmarking this caused confusion even on the left.  In fact both amounted to strike breaking in the midst of the ASTI action but this was not understood by many in the TUI and INTO. This weakness allowed the leaders to disorient ASTI’s supporters including the left brought up to believe that industrial action is the answer to every political question.  This failure fully to appreciate the character of benchmarking came to the fore again later in INTO when after the effort against it failed the left supported it being brought forward so they could get the money from it quicker!

In the final analysis the failure of the strike resulted from a lack of political consciousness.  This is what lies behind ASTI’s failure to understand just how far the government was prepared to go to defeat it.  This is what lies behind their failure to make benchmarking the central issue and to go over the heads of the leadership of the other teacher unions.  It explains the action of militants in these unions supporting ASTI and then supporting strike action to bring benchmarking in faster.

Bertie Ahern ignored the 30% claim and emphasised that it could easily be dealt with under the PPF, that is under benchmarking.  Opposition to benchmarking therefore became central.  Central because benchmarking means treating teachers as if they worked in the private sector. Since education is nothing without teachers this means treating education as if it was producing software or selling hamburgers.  Explaining that benchmarking only makes sense if education is to be treated as a commodity (educated children) produced for profit would have been a powerful argument to win parents and students support.  It would have disabused militants of the notion that strikes to bring it forward were in any way progressive.  It would explode current illusions that as a result of ASTI action benchmarking is now less of a threat.  A defeated strike will not have made benchmarking any less dangerous.

There is to be a new ballot of ASTI members in September.  They should not follow the demand of Teachers United to seek ‘an immediate review of pay within the PPF.’  Such a route forward fails to learn the lessons of the dispute and accepts defeat of the project of rejecting the PPF.  When Ahern promises that everything is possible within it he means only that the plans of the government become the benchmark against which any changes can be made.

There can be no disguising the difficulties ahead for teachers simultaneously attempting to gain pay increases due to them while defending their terms and conditions.  However a start can be made by reviewing the action so far in an honest manner and rejecting the wrong lessons which they will hear far too much of in the months ahead.


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