Solidarity and Betrayal - Two sides of the NI classroom assistants dispute

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In early December classroom assistants in the North returned to work after a series of strike actions which had gone on since September. This action by the classroom assistants showed in stark form the two faces of the trade union movement. On the one hand there was the tremendous bravery and solidarity shown by the workers themselves in standing up to attempts to bully and harass them back to work. On the other hand was the duplicitousness and skulduggery of some trade union bureaucrats who not alone did their best to undermine the dispute but actively worked with management and politicians to betray the workers.This dispute had its origin in “job evaluation” *discussions which had dragged on for the past 13 years. Fed up with the lack of progress, classroom assistants who are members of the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance trade union voted by a 93% margin to take industrial action. When NIPSA members took to the picket line, they received tremendous support from the general public and from the parents of the special needs children with whom they work. Unfortunately, classroom assistants who are members of 3 other unions (UNISON, GMB and T&GWU/Unite) did not join the industrial action.

Not alone that but after the first one-day strike in late September, the leadership of the GMB trade union came out on the side of management and in a move designed to undermine the strikers ‘accepted’ the management claim that classroom assistants’ pay should be calculated on the basis of a 36-hour week. This was the issue at the core of the dispute and would lead to effective pay cuts for the workers involved.

NIPSA members continued their industrial action and their fight for improved working conditions. The Minister for Education in the Northern Assembly, Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane, attacked the strikers and – in a deliberate attempt to appeal to public sympathy – expressed her ‘disappointment’ that ‘the most vulnerable in our society’ would be effected by the action.

In a display of two-facedness that should have made even the most duplicitous of politicians wince with shame and embarrassment, Sinn Fein’s education spokesperson Paul Butler MLA on 26th September declared on the SF website "Across the north Sinn Féin representatives have been standing shoulder to shoulder with classroom assistants in supporting their demand for their jobs to be graded and remunerated properly” while by 15th November the same Mr. Butler was declaring "I do not believe that the planned industrial action by classroom assistants will achieve anything except to create more hardship for children, parents and classroom assistants.” Strikers’ placards which had compared Ruane to Maggie Thatcher in her attitude to the strikers, drawing parallels with Thatcher’s attacks on the miners’ trade union, obviously hit a sore point.

Management tried further tactics to undermine the strike including sending a letter to the parents of pupils in special schools and learning support centres inviting them to send a family member to accompany a child with special needs to school – in other words to scab on the strikers. It is to the credit of the families of the children involved that this invitation was treated with the contempt it deserved and ignored.

However due to the political machinations of the other union leaders the NIPSA strikers were forced to call off their action in early December. At a Joint Negotiating Council meeting on 30th November the leaderships of GMB and UNISON joined forces with the employers to force a ‘settlement’ on NIPSA despite the majority of classroom assistants being members of NIPSA. This ‘settlement’ fails to meet the just demands of classroom assistants with regard to contractual rights, working conditions and pay. 

The treachery and mean-spiritedness of the employers, politicians and the leadership of GMB and UNISON cannot take away from the bravery and courage shown by the strikers. 17 days of industrial action is not an easy thing to do, with bills to pay and families to feed. The solidarity shown to each other and the goodwill towards the striking workers from the families of the children with whom they work will however stand to them in the future and when round two of this battle comes along, Caitriona Ruane and her politician mates might find that life in Stormont ain’t all a bed of roses.

Gregor Kerr (member Irish National Teachers Organisation, personal capacity)

* for the background to the issues see www.nipsa.org.uk
 


This article is from
Workers Solidarity 101, January - February 2008

 

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