Ireland: Apprentices walk-out over fees threat

Socialist Party campaigns for mass non-payment of fees for apprentices

Nearly 1,000 apprentices walked out of classes and lectures across the country today in opposition to the imposition of "service" fees for apprentices completing Phase 4 and Phase 6 of their apprenticeships. From early hours apprentices staged a boycott of classes assembling outside the institutes calling on their colleagues to join them in protest against Education Minister Dempsey’s introduction of the charge.

Despite being organised at very short notice, the protests were extremely successful and a clear indication of the level of anger of apprentices. 250 walked out at Bolton Street with a further 200 at Kevin St, in Dublin. 150 rallied in Cork while a further 100 marched out in both Waterford and Limerick with smaller actions taking place in Dundalk and Galway.

The issue has come to a head over the threat by Institute Directors to not release the exam results of apprentices until they had paid the charge. The Technical Engineering & Electrical Union (TEEU) took the initiative to organise the boycott and many of the construction unions supported the action.

From 8.30 onwards, apprentices assembled at the entrances of colleges and institutes. No plans had been made for a march to the Dept. of Education nor any strategy outlined as to how the fees could be fought. Indeed, some of the unions were content to limit the action to a symbolic protest at the entrance to the colleges. This jarred with the mood of the apprentices which was one of solid opposition to the fees and a willingness to get active in forcing the government back on the issue.

Conservative trade union officials

The role of our members was in direct contrast to the conservative approach of other union officials present. Socialist Party member and Building and Allied Trades Union (BATU) fulltime organiser, Tommy Fitzgerald took the initiative in organising a march of the apprentices from the Bolton St. Institute to Kevin St Institute. Here our proposal to march to Dail (Irish Parliament) was agreed with overwhelming support and over 500 apprentices marched on parliament chanting "no way – we won’t pay" and calling on Minister Dempsey to resign.

In Cork, Socialist Party member Mick Barry attended the protests in solidarity with the apprentices. Before he spoke to the crowd of 150 he was introduced as the "only politician in Cork who supports us."

In general, there was very open mood and our material was widely welcomed. The Socialist Party and Socialist Youth were the only political group to intervene effectively on the protests. Our leaflet was eagerly read, as it was the only thing that offered any direction and was quoted by apprentices interviewed later on radio. Not only did we call for a mass campaign of non-payment backed up by the trade union movement but we also addressed other issues of concern such as bullying and proper representation of apprentices through out the union structure including the creation of effective apprentice committees.

Today’s significant action is a clear indication on the one hand of the scope of the anti-working class agenda of the Fianna Fail / PD government. But it is also a yardstick of the level of anger amongst young people, especially young workers. Already in recent months the Institute Directors and the government have had to back down twice over this issue. However, the only way to defend and fight for better wages and conditions for young workers is for apprentices to be organised in the trade union movement.

However, apprentices cannot wait for the union leadership to move. The unions must be reclaimed from those in leadership who want to maintain the status quo, and fighting, democratic unions must be built. Apprentices must now go on the offensive to drive the government back. Socialist Youth in next days and weeks will assist in building a real offensive.

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February 2004