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Teachers’ pay campaign ends in sell out

John McAnulty

15th September 2004

A series of statements from teaching unions in the North of Ireland at the start of the new autumn term brought to an end a campaign to defend pay and conditions of service within teaching in the statelet.

The statements were masterpieces of spin, listing as victories the awarding of a pay increase below inflation and the fact that a number of older teachers would move up several points on the extended pay scale. The fact that the unions were adopting a new scheme for monitoring teacher performance was glossed over.

The claims of victory are in fact routine elements of the pay round and were not the issues at the centre of the dispute which were: 

1. The refusal of the government to extend a 2002 pay award to the North of Ireland. 
2. A demand for the implementation of performance related pay as a condition of future pay awards. 
3. Following from the first point, the loss of pay parity with teachers in Britain. Teachers on the extended pay scale would remain one year, or over £1,000, behind British teachers. This would be a permanent element of the pay structure and would serve as a beachhead for further steps towards regional pay. 

When the spin is removed what remains is the reality of outright defeat on all issues, a defeat made more bitter by the failure of unions like INTO to even get as far as exercising the mandate for strike action given to them by their membership. It is a defeat that carries with it the danger of an historic collapse in the funding of education and the possibility of a major cut in wage rates across the North, initially aimed at public sector workers but eventually extending to all workers.

These failures of trade union strategy go right back to Thatcher's defeat of the British teachers unions and their loss of negotiating rights – rights never restored by the Blair government. The teachers’ unions in the North developed a brilliant plan to prevent the loss of negotiating rights. They decided to surrender right away and accept the Government's terms. As a result the local negotiating machinery was retained, effectively rubberstamping the deal imposed in England, but having a marginal effect in slowing down the steps towards performance related pay. 

It was then that the teaching unions had their next bright idea, a form of local parliamentary idiocy based on the illusion that a Stormont parliament would work in the interests of the working class.

The idea was that we would copy Scottish teachers in having an enquiry (the Curran report) into pay and conditions of service.  This report would land on the desk of local Sinn Fein minister Martin McGuinness and he, looking for teacher votes and willing to accommodate funding for education, would award a generous pay deal and improved conditions.  It was always a daft plan, ignoring both the fact that Britain would have to fund any deal and also Sinn Fein’s previous willingness to implement a right-wing agenda of public-private partnership, handing public funds over to private sector profit.

In the event the education minister and the whole comic opera façade of the Stormont Assembly disappeared in the twinkling of an eye, leaving a steely-eyed junior new Labour minister under strict instructions to cut down the costs of the Irish  colony to the exchequer.  In the way of such things the Curran report was quickly adapted to demand an effective wage cut through the loss of the 2002 increment and the immediate introduction of performance related pay.  The unions huffed and puffed, mounting a campaign so ineffective that it went unreported, until they were called back by the minister and warned that further delay would mean the loss of further increments and negotiating rights – ‘negotiating rights’ in this case being the right to attend meetings and do as they were told.

The difficulty about fighting back from this position is the widespread illusion that ‘we’ have suffered a defeat and that ‘we’ must unite to fight back – where ‘we’ includes both rank and file and the union leaderships.  In fact the trade union leaderships have been in unofficial partnership with government and bosses for even longer than the official partnership in the South.  When they fell out with their partners they built a united campaign – but it was a campaign to unite the union bureaucracies, not the workers, and its purpose was protest and to remind the Government of the partnership, not to confront both Government and partnership.

So the unity had no real agreement behind it.  Everyone was in support, but support included unions that took no action at all and others, for example the head teachers, that actively scabbed during the dispute.   No attempt was made to link up with striking civil servants who were essentially engaged in a very similar struggle. As soon as it became clear that the government was unwilling to accept the protest, the focus of activity centred on the unions themselves designing a performance test to satisfy the minister while dreaming up ways to tell the members of the surrender. 

The power to take strike action, endorsed by majority vote, was never exercised. A completely false picture of the outcome was presented to members and all unions ruled out a ballot on acceptance – on the grounds that the biggest change in conditions of service for decades was not fundamentally a change in their contract! 

 There is a great deal of anger amongst teachers.    Many see that they have been treated unjustly and that they have been sold out.  It is unlikely at the moment that enough spontaneous anger has been generated to produce a rank and file movement, and the new Independent Workers Union is still too small to intervene, but there may be enough anger and understanding to generate the nucleus of a small public service rank and file network.

One thing we can be certain of. With attacks on public service and mass redundancy at the heart of new Labour’s manifesto, we haven’t seen the end of the offensive or of the need for workers to organise independently.


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