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Here we go again: teachers to be sold out a third time

Mark Walshe (ASTI Dublin)

20 March 2010

Last December, the Government booted our union leaders out of talks and imposed a pay cut. Stunned at having being suckered (again), our union leaders vowed that there would now be no cooperation with the so-called ‘transformation agenda’ to ‘reform’ the public sector.  Peter McCloone even went as far as to say that it was “now inconceivable” that public servants would support public sector reform. (‘Unions say public sector reform is dead in the water’ Irish Times, 5 December 2009) The ASTI’s bulletin to members reported a spokesperson as saying: “Those talks are over… They will not be restarted.” (Nuacht, Issue No 10, December 2009)  And yet, barely three months later, here we go — again!

‘No scope for restoring the pay cuts’

Our union leaders have agreed to enter what ASTI Assistant General Secretary Maire Mulcahy described as “exploratory talks” with the Government. They have accepted that restoring the pay cuts can only happen over time, when — and if — the economy picks up. This was let slip by Louise O’Donnell of Impact who said she hoped the talks would look at restoring the pay cuts “… as and when the finances are there to do so.” (Tonight with Vincent Browne, 11 March 2010)  It would seem that accepting this was a pre-condition for restarting the talks. As the Minster for Finance, Brian Lenihan, said: “… [W]e made it very clear to the union side that there is no scope for restoring the reductions that have already been made.  Subject to that, we’re prepared to engage with the staff side to see if industrial peace can be secured.” (‘Government stance on cuts must prevail’ Irish Times, 13 March 2009).

So it’s clear: we’re not getting our money back. And the chances of getting it back, on the basis of a recovery in the economy, are vanishingly small. The Government knows this and that is why, in any eventual agreement, it might be happy to give some vague assurance while setting the bar quite high for the economic growth required to restore the pay cuts.

In any case, however, one of the reasons the union leaders’ proposals were rejected in December 2009 was because the “savings” had to be permanent. The notion of temporary pay cuts was rejected. Brian Lenihan “insisted the pay bill savings would have to be permanent and not a once-off measure.” (Sunday Business Post, 3 December 2009)

On the basis of Lenihan’s position, our union leaders should have stuck to their guns and insisted, as they did when the December talks collapsed, that there would now be absolutely no cooperation with the so-called agenda to ‘reform’ the public sector. And therefore they should have refused to enter this latest round of talks.

However, they have decided to enter the talks on the Government’s terms, which, as quoted above, are subject to the pay cuts not being restored. If the restoration of the pay cuts is off the table, what are the talks going to deal with?

The ‘transformation’ agenda

The story begins back at the Magill Summer School in 2009, where Peter McCloone introduced the notion of doing “more with less.” In other words, much more could be done in the public sector with far fewer resources. Given then chronic underfunding of our public services, this idea in itself was simply not credible. Yet it formed the basis of a PR campaign (with posters, leaflets and newspaper ads) by the IMPACT trade union in which it tried to persuade the public to accept the idea.

It presented public servants as willing to engage in an agenda to ‘transform’ the public sector in order to deliver better services with fewer resources. This is the so-called ‘transformation agenda’. In the December talks, union leaders described it as an ‘historic offer’ of change to the Government. All they wanted in return was for the Government to accept ‘temporary’ pay cuts for one year.

These proposals had no mandate whatsoever from trade union members. The union leaders of the four teaching unions authorised the ICTU ‘Public Services Committee’ to negotiate the transformation agenda on our behalf. But as Paddy Healy of the TUI noted, ICTU held no special conference to give them the necessary authority to conduct these negotiations, as would be the norm in such situations.

Nevertheless, at the time of the talks in December, arguably something might have come out of them. Many trade union members probably supported the talks and the accompanying industrial action on the basis that they just might deliver something. In the end, as we know, the talks collapsed and the Government moved unilaterally to impose the pay cuts.

As a result of the collapse of those talks, we now know the broad outline of the deal the Public Services Committee were negotiating on our behalf, without any mandate.  And we know that, in the present talks, they are trying to offer more or less the same.  As the President of ICTU, Jack O’Connor, has said, “the task in the new talks is to  reconstruct that deal.” (This Week, RTE Radio 1, Sunday 14 March 2010)

What was/is being offered on our behalf?

As part of the discussion on the so-called transformation agenda, four separate documents were agreed for different sectors: 1) health 2) local government 3) education and 4) civil service/non-commercial semi-state bodies. These documents would provide the basis of agreements in each sector, subject to an overall deal being agreed.

The ‘Agreed Education Sector Agenda’ is the one that concerns us most directly and it contains some of the most far-reaching counter-reforms in the history of the trade union movement in Ireland. What are being presented by the Government and our union leaders as positive reforms, are, in fact, counter-reforms, aimed at rolling back rights and entitlements won by teachers over decades of industrial action.

The following is what the Agreed Education Sector Agenda proposes for postprimary teachers. Paddy Healy, a past president of the TUI and coordinator of the National Public Service Alliance, has provided an analysis of each point (in italics).
The provision, with effect from the start of the 2010/11 school year, of an
additional hour per week to be available to facilitate, at the discretion of
management, school planning, continuous professional development, induction, substitution and supervision (including supervision immediately before and after school times). This list is not exhaustive. This clause could have wide-ranging implications. It should be understood in the context of the agreement to continue the banning of replacement for Posts of Responsibility [PORs]. For example, in a 40 teacher school, the principal would now have 40 hours per week for non-teaching duties provided free by teachers [one hour per teacher]. One effect would be that principals could avoid some of the duties of unreplaced PORs being loaded on them. The extra duty hour also applies to existing POR holders. In the negotiations with the teacher general secretaries the Department [of Education and Science] included teaching in the duties mentioned. This was removed during the negotiations and restricted to non-teaching tasks. Suggestions that this is merely a document tabled by the Department are complete nonsense.

With effect from the start of the 2010/11 school year, post-primary teachers to be available for three timetabled class periods per week under the supervision and substitution scheme (while leaving the current maximum number of hours used per teacher per week under this scheme the same as at present).Self explanatory!

Full implementation of new procedures providing for redeployment of surplus teachers, to commence from January 2010 and to be fully implemented for the start of the 2010/11 school year.There are commitments to cross-sectoral redeployment in existing agreements. One source of problems in implementing the commitment is that some voluntary secondary schools refuse to accept transferees. It is not clear whether “new procedures” are additional to the commitments in existing national agreements. The three general secretaries with members in this area should be asked to explain. In any event the pay cut is a breach of T2016 [Towards 2016] by the employer. The moratorium is a breach of all previous national agreements. Teacher unions, therefore, have no obligation to honour the commitments on redeployment given in these agreements.

A comprehensive review and revision of the teaching contract to identify and remove any impediments to the provision of efficient and effective teaching to students in all sectors. This review and revision to be completed in advance of the start of the 2010/11 school year. This is the most dangerous provision of all. To renegotiate teachers contracts in the contexts of temporary pay cuts and threats of further pay cuts and the continuation of the ban on replacing PORs risks losing everything we have gained since the Ryan Report on PORs in the late sixties.

Teachers with huge mortgages, suffering from pension levy and pay cuts, could be put in the position of balloting on a proposal to restore pay cuts over time in return for a bonfire of all gains made by the union over 40 years. I believe that the neoliberal managerialists in Dept of Finance, Dept of Education and in the Cabinet, have a new business style model for the running of schools which would remove most promotional posts as is being demanded by Batt O’Keefe. A teacher who by end of service would have gained an AP post would loose over €9,000 per annum while serving and €4,500 per annum while on pension! This would be a pay cut in another form! Teaching could become one of the few grades in the public service with virtually no promotional posts!

This last point is indeed the most dangerous. Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar TD (spokesperson on Enterprise, Trade & Employment) and Brian Hayes TD (spokesperson on Education) have repeatedly referred in media appearances to the ‘need’ to renegotiate the teacher contract.

This is a salutary reminder that a Fine Gael-led government would be fully behind the same proposals and re-emphasises the importance of, first of all, organising for a rejection of any deal that comes out of the talks and, secondly, undertaking genuine, serious industrial action that forces the Government to take us seriously. Finally, the points above don’t include the additional attacks on pensions announced in the budget:

  • Pensions for new public staff to be calculated on career average; the minimum pension age for new public servants will also be increased from 65 to 66 and then linked to increases in the state pension age.
  • Review of the current arrangements and consideration linking pensions to increases in the cost of living; pending that review, “I do not intend to apply the pay cuts I have already outlined to existing public service pensioners.”

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