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ASTI dispute

Strikers face emergency powers, scab army
A battle to the death in recovery Ireland.

29 October 2016

The announcement on October 26th that the Irish secondary teacher's union, ASTI, was to proceed with industrial action in relation to pay was followed immediately by a declaration of war by the government.  

Minister for education Richard Bruton issued an ultimatum. Either the teachers agreed to carry out "core" duties - that is non-teaching duties prescribed by the government - by November 7th, or they would be removed from the payroll. This is the latest in a whole series of punishments using emergency legislation, applied to ASTI members in an attempt to force them to abide by an agreement, the Lansdowne Road agreement, that they did not sign up to, and where the issue in contention - equal pay for equal work - is one of the most fundamental principles of trade unionism.

Yet the much lauded Irish economic recovery is based on driving wages down and keeping them down. New recruits to the public sector are paid at a lower rate. A recent strike by LUAS light rail transport drivers won a pay increase but was unable to reverse a lower pay scale for new drivers. Striking Dublin bus drivers were awarded a low payment based on a significant increase in productivity and decrease in workplace rights that yet again involved the workers in paying for the increase and did nothing to reverse years of pay freeze.


The government is able to go on the offensive because they have the support of the Trade union leadership. Brendan Barbour, spokesperson for public sector union IMPACT, echoing the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, accused teachers and gardai of “betraying” other public sector workers and called on the government to crush the strike.

“Now that we’re out of the crisis, the majority of public servants have rightly held their nerve as the agreed route to public service pay restoration came under attack. The Government must take practical steps to reassure them that this continues to be the right call”

The leadership’s case is that by signing up to Lansdowne Road the ASTI can take part in a gradual process that will arrive at pay equality. There are a number of problems with this position:

  • Those in charge of negotiating the return of equal pay were the bureaucrats who first proposed its removal as a way of cutting wages without confronting existing trade union members.
  • The Lansdowne Road agreement contains a scab clause - FEMPI emergency legislation that allows the government to cut the pay and conditions of those who do not accept the agreement, even where they voted against.
  • The limited rebalancing of pay for those inside Lansdowne Road is subject to productivity deals. This is case with all recent pay settlements - workers are to work harder to pay themselves the increase.
  • The rebalancing is set against overall pay deals and used to restrain pay recovery for older workers. The outcome would be a steady fall in the value of public sector pay.
  • Given the limited recovery and the mass migration of recent years, in certain sectors a shortage of skilled labour is developing. Public sector pay, once the gold standard for pay overall, may now serve as a sea anchor to hold back private sector pay.
  • The biggest weakness of the call to come inside the Lansdowne tent is the position of the government. Despite countless questions from the press Minister Bruton point-blank refuses to endorse pay equality, even as a long-term goal.

The cards are stacked against the ASTI strikers. The direct hostility and scabbing of the majority of the union leaderships is "balanced" by the support of the teaching unions TUI and INTO. The TUI has instructed members not to do ASTI work and primary teachers union INTO held an evening demonstration. However both strongly support the Lansdowne Road agreement and the TUI stopped short of advising its members not to cross picket lines. Even within the ASTI executive there is a refusal to confront the backstabbing of the scabs and some executive members are already calling for compromise.

Fiscal space

Taoiseach Enda Kenny says that the restoration of public sector pay is unaffordable. Brendan Barbour says that:

“The large and silent majority of public servants understand that income recovery can’t happen overnight……But they know that, just as in the private sector, their employer has to be able to bear the cost of pay increases”.

By affordable, both mean that pay must sit within the fiscal space left when Irish workers pay off the bankers’ debt, accept the austerity regime set by Europe, subsidise transnational companies,  and accept tax breaks for vulture capitalists plundering local resources.

As Leon Trotsky once remarked, when reformism reaches its endpoint and reform is not within reach all that is left is support for capitalism and reaction. 

The ability of workers to respond to the threats facing them is obstructed by the socialist groups longstanding policy of peaceful coexistence with the union bureaucracy. There is some criticism of Brendan Barbour, but no recognition that he is expressing the scab policy of the union leadership. There are calls for workers to support the teachers, but no call for a battle against the union leaderships and the Lansdowne Road agreement.

The current struggle is a real crisis for the socialist groups. They supported the "left" unions that directed the Right2Water campaign and then diverted it into the dead end of the populist "Right2Change" electoral front with the complicity of the left. Clinging to the coat tails of the left bureaucracy no longer seems a comfortable position.
Much to play for

There is much to play for. In the background is a parallel dispute around the Lansdowne Road agreement involving the Garda, which holds clear dangers for the government.  The majority of ASTI members have taken industrial action, at financial cost to themselves, in support of new entrants denied equal pay. TUI members have refused to cross picket lines despite a silence from their own leadership. There is widespread support among trade unionists and the general public. Skill shortages will exert an upward pressure on wages and the raging housing crisis, fed by vulture capitalism and a government of landlords and property speculators subordinate to imperialism, makes life on current wage rates extremely difficult.

The task now is to spread support for the teachers as widely as possible, to build defence committees that seek support across union structures and with teachers and pupils and which rejects Lansdowne Road and whole capitalist philosophy of the workers continuing to sacrifice themselves as the imperialists and local parasite capitalists continue to fatten off their blood.

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