The deputy general secretary of IMPACT has said that the latest Croke Park proposals are by far the most difficult challenge currently faced by the entire trade union movement, and that the ballot on the proposals is not a referendum on austerity or the performance of the current Government.
Kevin Callinan was speaking at the closing session of the union’s inaugural education conference in Kilkenny. He told delegates that the proposals are “a pragmatic deal with our employer in circumstances where we have good reason to believe that the alternative will be worse.”
He told delegates that the stakes were high as members balloted on whether or not to endorse the agreement, “It is fantasy to think that this Government will exempt public servants from further pain and try to find the €1bn elsewhere. In short, if the deal is rejected, a deal which limits the employer’s options to cut, it means that the Government can exercise unlimited options to cut instead. Where will they start? Pay, pensions, increments, job protection and working hours. These are the areas where the employer sought to dig deepest, and the current proposals set clear limits on what they can do.”
Mr Callinan warned that, in the absence of an agreement, enhanced job security provisions for the union’s 6,000 Special Needs Assistants would likely be lost. He added, “Some of the loudest voices against the latest proposals are coming from those facing the lowest risk of redundancy or redeployment. There is an aggressive campaign in some quarters to outsource swathes of public service activity. Without important restrictions on these measures, a real and persistent threat would become a reality for administrative staff in VEC’s, IOT’s and many other parts of the public service.”
Organising in education
IMPACT’s education division, which was created in 2012, represents almost 10,00 workers in the education sector in non-teaching roles. These include special needs assistants, school secretaries, clerical and administrative staff in VECs and institutes of technology, and staff of the National Education Welfare Board and school completion programmes. Mr Callinan told delegates, “The education workers represented here have been isolated, in various degrees, for too long. Every grade represented here has been, in its own way, defined as an adjunct of teaching rather than a vital role in its own right. Our challenge is to bring cohesion and unity to our education membership.”
Mr Callinan told delegates that falling density in union membership globally has compromised the trade union’s ability to campaign successfully for an alternative to the current ‘prescription of austerity’. He said “Density levels have tumbled, most obviously in the private sector. Low participation levels and the view of union membership as a service have helped to fuel cynicism. From this cynicism, and with the frequent help of those who fear an effective workers’ movement, a wedge has been driven between workers in the private and public sectors that has weakened the trade union movement. This is a global phenomenon, and by no means exclusive to this country.
“It has affected our ability to campaign successfully for an alternative to the current prescriptionof austerity. Almost uniquely the trade union movement has been consistent in its analysis and criticism of the austerity programme since its inception. Despite the crippling austerity programmes, and their deadening effects, most European electorates, including our own, are voting in centre-right Governments. We have some way to go before our own Government can be persuaded to pursue policies that will promote growth and jobs.
“People live in a society not an economy. Part of the task of the trade union movement is to clearly defend the threshold of decency that stops us all becoming subjects of economic tyranny. Do we want to see achievements won after years of struggle dispensed with? In our case that could mean sacrificing the rights of children with special needs to a mainstream education, among many other things. We can’t allow that to happen” he said.
Mr Callinan said that the union’s education division need to ‘think big’ on the question of jobs. “There have been concerns expressed about the Troika-inspired approach to labour market activation – worries about the future of community employment schemes, fears about the potential exploitation of JobBridge and so on.
He suggested that the trade union movement could supply a large number of internships, and take responsibility to identify and develop suitable opportunities in every workplace. He said the approach should include constructing internship models so that the employers had to deliver tangible benefits and the individual truly benefited from the experience while ensuring that they were controlled and monitored to prevent exploitation.
He said “Internships are becoming a part of the modern economy whether we like it or not. In the report published last year in Britain by the group headed up by former Labour Minister Alan Milburn to update previous work on Fair Access to the Professions it was made clear that there had been an explosion in the number of internships in the preceding three years. He described it as something that was becoming a formal part of the labour market.
“But access is a huge issue with those ‘in the know’ or connected winning out over those without such influence thus perpetuating social inequality. So it is a broader issue than just the JobBridge programme. My proposal is that the trade union movement invests resources to speak up for the quality and conditions surrounding internships in a way that ensures we are responding to the labour needs of young people. Their first experience of a trade union in the workplace should be a direct experience of their interests being protected” he said.