School reopening revolt puts the squeeze on union bosses
21 January 2021
The Dublin government announced in January that plans to reopen special schools as part of a phased reopening of the school system had been postponed.
They were postponed due to a revolt by teachers and classroom assistants who believed that no real consideration of their own health and safety was involved in the decision.
In the aftermath there were recriminations between the two unions immediately involved, the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO), the public sector union Fórsa and the government. The dispute lays bare the mechanism of social partnership which since the beginning of the pandemic has united the union bureaucracy and the government, with little consideration given to union members.
INTO leader John Boyle said that “a culture of blame” would not solve the reopening issue. Andy Pike of the Forsa trade union, which represents Special Needs Assistants, said that SNAs everywhere did not have confidence in the approach set out by the Government.
The department said it was "regrettable" that a shared objective that would allow children with special educational needs to return to in-school learning could not be reached.
Education Minister Norma Foley and Minster for Special Education Josepha Madigan hit out at the unions saying that the re-opening of schools `will regrettably not be possible owing to a lack of co-operation by key staff unions in the primary sector…" Madigan then compared the unions to the management of the infamous Mother and Baby homes where many babies died before retracting her remarks.
John Boyle claims that teachers can't wait to get back to school and that there should be no blame game, but the overall dispute shows that there was a formal agreement between unions and government thrown off course by a revolt of the members.
This should be no surprise. The Covid-19 crisis has been accompanied by a long public silence from the unions, a strong indication that the mechanisms of social partnership had swung into place, with behind-the-scenes consultation in exchange for union collaboration. This silence was so extreme that statements of concern about workers protection have been coming from management rather than unions.
INTO and FÓRSA, along with SIPTU are the three police officers of social partnership, ushering through a decade of austerity and ensuring that a cut in public sector pay and pensions would become permanent through a Public Service Stability Agreement (PSSA) mechanism.
The revolt by members indicates that the social partnership culture may be reaching its limits. The major problem here is that the revolt was completely spontaneous. There is no substantial political opposition to collaboration by the trade union bureaucracy, but there is now a sharp check on how readily they can sign up to government schemes.
Of course, it's in the interest of pupils, especially special needs pupils, that there be a return to school, but this has to be balanced by the threat to staff and the reservoir of infection that school populations and transport represent.
The needs of pupils are not at the heart of return to school programmes. The pupils have to be in school so that the parents can go to work and the economy revived. The problem with this economic motivation is that the cost of schooling cannot be allowed to rise sharply and the investment in extensive on-line teaching, PPE, temporary buildings, extra transport, vaccination and so on are not being made. Teachers and assistants are being offered masks and sprays and are being told to get on with it.
The Covid-19 virus has exposed the weakness of capitalist society. Rather than the relatively simple, if painful and costly, task of pandemic management, at every stage there is a battle between health and economic interests, with expert opinion pushed to one side. When economic interests come first the virus surges forward.
The defence of teachers and teaching assistants is a defence of us all. The holy grail of mass vaccination diverts from the fact that full scale lockdown, mass testing and tracking and overcoming the political considerations that prevented an all-Ireland response would already have substantially reduced infection.
The health of the people must come first. That can be assured if the workers organise in their own defence.