Defending public education

Credit: Twitter / @UTLAnow

The US has seen industrial action by teachers not just demanding better pay and conditions but striking for public education itself. LookLeft asks, can this happen in Ireland?

The education sector in the United States has seen a rise in industrial action. Starting with the Chicago teachers strikes in 2013, there has been industrial action taken in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Colorado, as well as Washington State and Chicago, and last week Los Angeles.

The industrial action has been noticeable for several reasons, including that the defence of public education has been front and foremost in demands.

What’s also been noticeable is the successes which have come with confident industrial action. After a six-day strike, Los Angeles teachers are after winning a pay rise, as well as smaller class sizes, more green space, a reduction in testing, more nurses, counsellors, and librarians in schools, and a reduction in random searching of students.

Defending public education in Ireland
Standing up for education as a public good isn’t restricted to US unions.

“INTO members care passionately about the state of Irish primary education and the wider landscape,” says David Geary, head of communications at the primary level teachers union.

“In our last pre-budget campaign we called for greater funding in education to reduce the need to fundraise to the tune of €40 million annually in schools for additional expenses.

“In addition our members campaigned for increased access to qualified supply teachers to cover absences.”

At second level, their colleagues in the ASTI have engaged in a long-running process of industrial action, including strikes in 2014 and 2015, on Junior Cert reform, which the union believes could have negative consequences for fairness, equity and standards for students.

While it is clear that members of the teaching unions see standing up for public education as part of their work and are willing to take industrial action to defend it, the challenge arises when the cause of a dispute is categorised as “political”.

The Industrial Relations Act 1990 imposed a range of constraints on workers and the trade unions representing them, while providing employers with legislative protection.

Rather than giving a positive right to strike, the 1990 Act gives union members, officials and the unions themselves immunity when they undertake actions.

There are a number of caveats to immunity, including that a secret ballot must be held and that sit ins and occupations are not protected.

A trade dispute is defined as “any dispute between employers and workers which is connected with the employment, or non-employment, or the terms or conditions of or affecting the employment, of any person”. Trying to enforce a closed shop agreement, demarcation disputes, and industrial action connected with purely political issues would not qualify as a valid trade dispute and so forfeit the protection of the Act.

“Certainly unions could carry out campaigns,” says IR expert Daryl D’art on political issues. “But, as I understand the 1990 act, not strike or take industrial action.”

D’art points to the dispute which arose when the National Transport Authority proposed to put 10% of bus routes out to tender, resulting in the partial privatisation of the company.

The NBRU and SIPTU argued that this would adversely affect terms and conditions of employment. After unsuccessful negotiations, members were balloted and went on strike.

Following the strike, Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann wrote to the unions involved claiming their action was illegal and threatening High Court proceedings for damages.

While the unions dismissed the letter as a threat to their members, the then-Minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe appeared to suggest that it was a political strike and therefore not protected.

Chilling effect

Gemma Tuffy of the ASTI highlights, however, that teachers’ terms and conditions as inextricably linked to the delivery of education services.

“For example, much of the sustained industrial relations campaigning of the seventies and eighties was driven by an explicit understanding of the link between salary and pension rights, the status of the teaching profession, and the value placed on education as a public good.

“The ASTI’s current campaign for equal pay for post-2010 entrants to teaching arose due to the fact that teachers who started their careers after 2010 have different pay arrangements, which means they earn substantially less than their colleagues over the duration of their careers.

“The introduction of inferior pay scales for these teachers has contributed to a recruitment and retention crisis in teaching which, if left unresolved, will inevitably impact on the quality and attractiveness of our education service.”

Most of those who went on strike in 2016 on the matter of the two-tier pay scale were not personally impacted by the inferior pay scale. “They were striking in solidarity with their lower-paid colleagues and for the future of the teaching profession,” says Tuffy.