N Ireland: Classroom assistants betrayed!

Union leaders try to break strike

During 2007, three thousand classroom assistants in Northern Ireland were locked in a battle with the Education Boards, the Assembly [local power-sharing government], the Executive [government cabinet] and the Education Minister, Catriona Ruane. They took strike action, starting in September 2007.

Classroom assistants provide support for teachers in schools and are employed by the Education and Library Boards. They have endured nearly 13 years of attacks on their pay and conditions, during which time the Education and Library Boards have deliberately used a “job evaluation” process to keep costs down.

When the executive was re-established, the Minister for Education, Caitríona Ruane of Sinn Fein, endorsed a new “offer” to the assistants, in June 2007. She argued that the offer would settle the long-standing demands of the assistants. In fact, the proposal reduced assistants’ hourly pay rates by up to 18.5 %

Angry members of NIPSA (the main public sector union in N Ireland) rejected the deal and returned a massive 93.4% vote for strike action. The action began with a one day strike on 26 September. Picket lines were in place in almost every town and village in the North and frequent local demonstrations were held. On 26 September, over 1,000 striking assistants marched through Belfast city centre, in a militant and determined show of strength. The strike has dominated the local news for months and the assistants enjoy widespread public support.

However, from the start of the action, officials from other unions and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions disgracefully attacked the strike and shamefully worked to undermine it.

The following article – based no a Socialist Party leaflet text that was widely distributed to class room assistants – was first published on the Socialist Party website on 2 December 2007.


Classroom assistants betrayed!

NIPSA classroom assistants have fought a magnificent battle over many months to defend their pay and conditions. It appears now that assistants will have to employ new tactics to achieve their goals for the simple reason that their democratic vote to reject the deal on the table, and to take strike action, has been overturned by a disgraceful manoeuvre.

The fact that over 1,000 assistants have joined NIPSA since it declared its vote for all-out strike is a clear indication of which union represents the views of a majority of assistants. NIPSA has 3,200 classroom assistant members. The other unions probably have no more than 1,000 between them. NIPSA is prepared to open its membership lists to public scrutiny. The other unions refuse to do so.

Despite the fact that they are in a minority, the GMB and Unison unions have pretended otherwise and have organised to break the strike. Their actions are supported by the employers and Catriona Ruane, the minister for education in N Ireland’s power-sharing Assembly. They have also been effectively supported in their strikebreaking by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

Classroom assistants have taken public action to show their defiant and angry response to the GMB and Unison, to the Assembly, and to Catriona Ruane (Sinn Fein) and another Assembly minister, Peter Robinson (Democratic Unionist Party). NIPSA classroom assistants remain determined and united in their resolve to successfully conclude their dispute. The Socialist Party will continue to stand with the classroom assistants until they achieve their just demands.

For democracy in the unions

If one thing is clear in this dispute it is that the majority of working class people support the assistants. And, of course, the majority of Unison and GMB members support the assistants. The officials who run the GMB and Unison get away with their underhand tactics because they are unelected and unaccountable. They have no intention of taking on the employers and are more comfortable attacking their own members. Last week, in a particularly sharp expression of this, Unison launched an investigation against Pat Lawlor nursing convenor at the Royal Victoria Hospital because of his outspoken support for the classroom assistants. 

If union officials, of all unions, were paid the average wage of those they represent, and faced regular elections during which they would be obliged to defend their record, most of the current incumbents would be out on their ear. GMB and Unison members must organise to democratise their unions. NIPSA classroom assistants should insist that they control every aspect of decision making in their dispute. The unions belong to the members, not a few bureaucrats, and it is time to remind them of that.

An update on the class room assistants struggle will appear soon.

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January 2008