Teachers unions showing the way - ‘No’ vote only the start – build now for industrial action

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The decision of the 3 teacher unions to conduct a ballot for industrial action ups the ante in the battle against government attempts to impose a new round of paycuts on public sector workers.  The unions have announced a decision to “conduct a ballot of members for industrial action, up to and including strike action”, and that industrial action “will be triggered in the event of government proceeding unilaterally to impose salary cuts or to worsen working conditions.”

The decision comes on the back of strong No votes to the Croke Park Extension ‘deal’ in all 3 unions – (TUI 80%, ASTI 85%, INTO 69.5%) and emphasises that No means No and that there should be no talk of unions re-entering ‘negotiations’ with the government about their plans to cut €1 billion from the public sector paybill.  It contrasts sharply with the statement from the Executive Council of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions after the vote on Croke Park II when they said that “changes could only be brought about by way of consultation and negotiation.”

David Begg and other ICTU officials don’t seem to have got the message that No means No.  They had no mandate to enter talks in the first place and the massive rejection of the outcome of those talks means that there is certainly now no mandate for ‘consultation’ or ‘negotiation’.

Legislation

The leaderships of the teacher unions, on the other hand have heard the message from members clearly and have rightly taken the decision to put it up to the government to respond with legislation if they dare.  Before the result of the ballot became clear, government ministers such as Brendan Howlin and Brian Hayes were threatening a 7% across-the-board paycut if the deal was rejected. 

Whatever legislation the government is currently planning, it is obvious that the strength of the legislation will be determined by the expected response.  That is why it is important that we are very clearly stating that they can expect to be met by strong and determined industrial action and strike action in response to legislation.

The strength of the No vote across the public sector has dramatically shifted the balance of power in the unions and has demonstrated to the ‘leaders’ that they must listen to and follow the wishes of the members.  It would be a mistake, however, for union members to trust that officials who gladly went into talks a couple of months ago to ‘negotiate’ a paycut for members are now ready to lead a fight against those same cuts. 

Ownership

In all unions, members must take up the challenge of taking ownership of the coming battles.  This can be done by calling special meetings – at whatever level possible -  local meetings in workplaces, special union conferences at regional and national level etc.  It is only by discussing and planning at grassroots level that a campaign of action capable of winning can be built.  It is only by taking ownership of the campaigns that union members can be sure that they won’t be sold out, or that actions won’t be called off in favour of ‘consultation and negotiation.’

The teacher unions are showing the way, others should follow.  Members of the teacher unions must deliver a strong Yes vote in the ballot for industrial action and follow that up with special conferences of the unions to agree a strategy capable of winning and to take ownership of that strategy.

By our vote against the ‘deal’ we have faced down government threats. We now need a massive vote in favour of industrial action to follow up that message with the one that we won't be bullied by their legislation either.  The No vote was only the start - but it has shown that we don't have to be pushed round.  Let’s take the power.

Words: Gregor Kerr (Chair District 14 INTO) - personal capacity

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