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Report on Dublin demo against education cuts 

JM Thorn 

8 December 2008

Last Saturday (6th) over forty thousand people took part in a march in Dublin against the education cutbacks.  Organised by teaching unions under the banner  “Schools United” it drew broad support.  This ranged from those who work within the education sector, university students, the wider trade union movement, community campaigns as well as parents and pupils.  What was particularly striking was the large number of ad-hoc groups based on local schools that attended.  The clusters of parents and children with their homemade banners and posters with slogans such as "Money for manicures but not for books" and "Don't let our small guys become their fall guys" really stood out and gave the demonstration a genuinely grassroots and popular feel.  In this it was similar to the huge anti-war demonstration of 2003.

The size of the demonstration can be gauged by the fact that the front of the march had reached its end point in Merrion Square while marchers were still moving off from the assembly point in Parnell Square.   As a spectacle the march was impressive.  It was a clear expression of public concern over specific issues such as class sizes, conditions of school buildings, and removal of free book schemes and English support language teachers for children, as well as a more general discontentment with the budget.   However, despite its size, the march had a rather subdued air about it – there was a stark contrast with the smaller yet angrier demos by pensioners and students that had taken place in the wake of the budget.

The downbeat and conservative tone emanated most strongly from the trade union leaders, and was reflected in speeches made from the platform.  Their main thrust was an emotional appeal to the Government to be reasonable and to allow children to suffer.   INTO president Declan Kelleher told the crowd that the Government should not "penalise" children because the economy was in crisis.  He said that for teachers rising class sizes was “a bridge too far”.   INTO general secretary John Carr told the protesters that the presence of so many on the streets sent a clear message to Government about the kind of society people wanted, and wanted children to grow up in.  He said that a message had “been sent to Government that people don't want children herded into overcrowded classes."  He conceded that that teaching staff and parents would “play a part and pay their fair share in finding a resolution to the current economic crisis” but they would “not support a savage and misguided attack on children which is this Government's solution.”

Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland president Pat Hurley said education had been neglected during the Celtic Tiger boom years. "As a result there is no fat to trim from the education sector. Parents know this and teachers know this," he said.  The budget cutbacks, he added, would mean larger classes, less subject choice, fewer English language support teachers and home school liaison teachers, removal of grants for Traveller education, transition year, leaving cert applied physics and chemistry, and school books.  He said that every child and their family would be affected by these cuts.  The ASTI's John White told protestors the crisis in the public finances could not be solved by creating a crisis in schools.   He said that while teaching unions staged the Government’s  “concern about the country’s finances” the education service could “not be thrown into crisis when our children’s futures and indeed the future of the entire nation depends on it”.   He vowed to “see these cuts reversed”. Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) general secretary Peter McMenamin strongly rejected suggestions by the education minister that the unions were "scaremongering" or that the protest was just about looking “after ourselves as teachers”.   He said that teachers were out on streets because they cared about the education system. 

Though these speeches sounded worthy any opposition they suggested or pointed towards is undermined by the trade unions continued adherence to social partnership.  If you are in partnership with the Government that is implementing cuts, and accept that such cuts have to be made, then the only role for trade unions is to make suggestions on where the axe should fall.  There is no basis for outright opposition.   Trade union leaders have completely bought into the phoney patriotic argument, just as they did with the first social partnership deal twenty years ago, that workers must make sacrifices in order to revive the economy.  Only weeks few weeks ago, the same trade unions who are organising protest rallies, signed up to a pay agreement that effectively cuts wages, and contains a clause that allows empowerment not to pay the meagre increases.  At Aer Lingus they accepted redundancies, deteriorating working conditions and the creation of a two-tier workforce.

As long has trade unions remain locked within social partnership there is no possibility of building an effective opposition to the cuts.  Speeches made by trade leaders from the platforms be may full of righteous indignation, but as long they remain committed to a process that by its very nature can only deliver a rotten outcome, it is just empty sabre rattling.  It is not the case that social partnership can deliver something better by the trade unions adopting a firmer negotiating position.  In the current period all that can be delivered are austerity measures.  Even in the period of the “boom” the outcomes were poor.  Take spending on education as an example, which as a proportion of GDP has in the last ten years has dropped from 5.2 to 4.6 per cent. 

At present most workers don’t see the contradiction between protesting and support for social partnership.  They have illusions that protesting within this framework can deliver better outcomes or even that partnership can even afford some form of protection.  There is also the older illusion that Fianna Fail, as a populist party, will respond to discontent among the grassroots.  This was a strong element of the speeches at the education demo with speakers warning that Fianna Fail would suffer at the ballot box if they didn’t change course.  The problem with this is that all the parties that would make up a Government are committed to a programme of austerity.  All this points to the urgent need for the working class to act as an independent force in Irish society.  The essential condition for this is the rejection of social partnership and a struggle to restore trade unions as independent organisations of the working class.  Certainly we are a long way from that, but over the next period, as the recession deepens and attacks intensify, the illusions that hold back the development of an opposition movement should start to dispel.   The demo against education cuts offers a glimpse of the potential strength of such movement. 


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