Malcontents and 'cliques' ??

The ASTI dispute as seen through the eyes of ICTU

A question for you to ponder: In the Sunday Independent on 7th April 2002, which group of people in Irish society was described by Emer O'Kelly as " exhibiting the worst kind of moral inertia, a kind of Thatcherite, bull-headed indifference to the mores of a decent society." Money grabbing land developers? Child-raping priests? Self-serving politicians?

No, no and no again. This bunch of "malcontents who have abused.. children" (as written in the same article) was none other than members of the three teacher unions - ASTI, INTO and TUI who, at their union conferences the previous week, had threatened - to varying degrees - to take industrial action if their claims for wage increases were not met. This particular article may have been totally over the top but its political slant was not at all out of step with the coverage which the ASTI have been getting as the one union who have actually been involved in taking action in pursuit of their claim.

We might quite rightly expect no different from the media. But the ASTI - as was the case with the ILDA - came under fierce attack from a quarter that might not be so expected. Members of the ASTI might have expected that their first port of call in terms of looking for support might be their fellow teachers in the INTO and TUI. But this turned out not to be the case. While rank-and-file members of the other teacher unions were undoubtedly supportive of the ASTI stance, at leadership level it was a different story.

The then general secretary of the INTO, who is also president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, launched a stinging attack on the ASTI tactic of withdrawing from supervisory duties in schools. He referred to the ASTI campaign as a disaster for all teachers and claimed that the union was being run by a "small clique" that was not interested in a solution to the dispute. Interestingly this 'small clique' swept the boards at the ASTI conference in terms of capturing key positions within the union leadership. While anarchists would obviously argue that the building of strong effective rank-and-file organisation is more important than the capturing of leadership positions, nevertheless this showed that the militants within the ASTI were reflecting much more closely the views of ordinary members and activists than were O'Toole and his media allies.

It is very clear just why the ICTU leadership was - and is - so keen to attack the ASTI. Because they have decided to leave ICTU and reject so-called 'social partnership' the ASTI - as were the ILDA - are seen as the enemy. ICTU's big fear is that the confrontational tactics of the ASTI might actually be successful, thus demonstrating to other groups of workers that the trade union movement does not have to be shackled to the notion of 'we're all in this together'. Just as Mick O'Reilly was kicked out of the ATGWU for his anti-partnership stance, so both ASTI and ILDA have come under attack by media, government and fellow trade unionists for their 'heresy' in daring to plot an independent path.

Gregor Kerr

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This edition is No70 published in June 2002

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