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Teachers action marks beginning of the end for local partnership
8th March 2004
The current low key action by teachers unions in the North of Ireland, taking place alongside industrial action by civil servants and disquiet in the health service, has hardly made enough ripples to even be reported on the local media. Yet the action is of great significance, indicating that a decades-old policy of unofficial partnership between government, bosses and the union bureaucracy is now in the process of collapsing to the right.
The teacher's action involves non-cooperation in non-teaching activities which now take up so much of their time and the threat of progression to strike action. The action has arisen because a local inquiry on teacher's pay has reported that employers should skip a payment of approximately £1,000 on the grounds that the inquiry was sitting when the award became due!
The way in which the situation arose illustrates perfectly the method of the trade union bureaucracy and the nature of the growing offensive.
The enquiry into pay was called for by the unions themselves. Initially it was based on the illusion that Sinn Fein minister Martin McGuinness, operating under a budget provided by Britain, would substantially increase pay. When McGuinness and Sinn Fein were forced out of the executive the unions found themselves dependent on New Labour. In both cases the method of operation was to assume that the state would show sympathy with the teachers.
This hardly credible belief, the foundation of the trade union bureaucrat's strategy, has run up against a sharp change in the response of Government and bosses, driven by three factors:
1 The collapse of the 'Peace dividend'. On the heels of the evident collapse of the political elements of the Good Friday agreement, it has become obvious that the much-touted 'Peace Dividend' - the inward investment that was supposed to follow the political settlement - is just as illusory as the political settlement itself. In reality the Northern colony is continuing its economic decline, with the small inward flow of high-tech jobs failing to keep pace with the collapse of traditional industry.
2 Gibraltar solution What is emerging is the 'Gibraltar solution'. The lack of challenge to British rule is linked to the fact that 30% of the workforce are employed by the state. But the population of the northern colony is much greater than that of Gibraltar and the costs are so much greater. There are growing mutterings from the British. Fewer should work for the state - and those that do should be paid less. The specific financial problems of the local colony are in turn thrown into sharper relief by the deterioration of the fiscal position of the British state as a whole, which is planning further tax increases and quite savage attacks on public service numbers and conditions.
3 Regional pay In this broader debate Blair and Brown are continuing the Thatcherite policy of attacking public services and have long aimed for performance related pay that will have worker fighting worker for a few pence. Now they are going where Thatcher never dared - driving down wage rates by imposing regional pay.
The main offensive is planned for next year. The de facto introduction of regional pay for teachers is more of an opportunistic salient. It's enough to shake the complacent collaboration of the local trade union bureaucracy and send them scrabbling for some alternative that they can convincingly present to their members.
In this case the alternative is protest. If increases do not arrive automatically then surely dignified protest will bring everyone to their senses? However even this protest is constrained by the needs of the bureaucracy which needs unity - unity of the bureaucrats, not unity of the workers. The outcome is a hodge-podge of diplomacy. One group is willing to strike, another to carry out action short of strike, another work to rule and another nothing at all but they 'support' the rest.
The way is open for the employers to drive a coach and horses through the protest. The best that can be expected from the mish-mash of protest (constantly being redefined by the unions for fear that it be too radical) is a dirty deal where pay parity is temporarily restored at the cost of accepting performance related pay.
There is a silver lining. There is real fury at school level at the injustice of the imposed cut in pay and a real willingness to take action. The relative militancy of teachers is fuelled by ignorance of the forces facing them and most share with their union leaders a belief that protest will be enough. However they will learn from experience. That experience would be gained more quickly if there were even the embryo of rank and file structures or some groundwork aimed at linking activists in the public sector unions who are at present struggling is isolation against both the bosses and the limitations imposed by their own trade union leaders.