It’s hard for me to say if taking a megaphone, and using it to disrupt Ruairi Quinn’s address to a teachers’ union, is going to make a useful difference. That is what teacher Andrew Phelan did at the ASTI conference, and it seems to have been the catalyst for a media furore.
The response of the ASTI General Secretary, Pat King, to the broader disruptive actions at Quinn’s appearance, will, however, make a useful difference: to a Minister for Education in a right-wing government concerned with the continued neo-liberalisation of the education system, and to the interests served by such a government.
King did two things: he accorded Ruairi Quinn a degree of respect that Quinn denies to teachers through his department’s policies. And he singled out, in public, those who loudly protested Quinn’s appearance as “anti-democratic” and, using the language of the war on terror, “extremists“.
What gives a general secretary the authority to make such comments about fellow union members? Even if one disagrees with the approach taken by these teachers, and even if one finds their actions a royal pain in the ass, there are basic principles of solidarity and equality involved. King -despite what his surname might suggest- does not have the authority to speak for ASTI against a particular section of its members.
How the Irish Times reported it. ASTI = Pat King. ‘Hecklers’ not part of ASTI. ‘Extremist’ requires scare quotes; ‘undemocratic’ does not.
The fact that King felt free to depart from such principles, and to use the terms that he did, points at a deep rot in union structures. It demonstrates -to teachers and to the public- that the union does not have the capacity to withstand a neoliberal onslaught, so much so that its general secretary appears more concerned with the humanity of an individual responsible for the humiliation of teachers and other workers in education through the introduction of JobBridge to schools, and, with particular reference to ASTI, through using the Dáil to threaten its membership with job loss unless they voted the right way, than he is with preserving a modicum of solidarity. Because it is not just those who disrupted proceedings who were the object of his remarks, but anyone who might consider open dissent: this is what you will get.
This concern with Quinn’s humanity is forelock tugging raised to the level of high art. It is not as if Quinn is in any way concerned, or a stranger to dishing it out. Anything that makes this vandal look like the reasonable and wounded party only strengthens Quinn’s position of power. It just burnishes his standing with Ireland’s media, which is uniformly right-wing, and his constituency of education privateers.
And so you have to wonder why these unions go through the annual rigmarole of inviting the Minister for Education in the first place. Couldn’t the union leadership just get him on a videoconferencing session and put it onto a webcast to be watched at delegates’ leisure? This ritual of acknowledging the authority of the Minister of the day is bad enough at the best of times, but when the effect is to bolster the legitimacy of an austerity government bent on unravelling public education…well, it just shows how much unions in Ireland are part of the State, and how much their leadership is inexorably drawn to make a beast of two backs with the government of the day.
The focus of the media is on the actions of a few teachers who disrupted proceedings. The portrayal of teachers as more infantile than pupils no doubt has a certain psychodramatic appeal for the belligerent ghouls who hold forth on Ireland’s schools in the media, and who seek to gin up public animosity against teachers. But maybe there is something ritualistic about the disruption too.
‘Let’s defend public education – it belongs to everyone!’
I am writing this from Spain, where teachers and other workers in the education sector have formed militant alliances with parents and students in defence of public education in the face of cutbacks and privatisation. It has won a great deal of public support, and is far healthier and more productive for the teachers taking part than the grim spectacle of deference and dissolution that comes round in Ireland once a year like an evil Santa.
There are few things more destructive of genuine education, and the democracy ASTI’s general secretary claims to value, than the idea that the interests of the (neoliberal) State and the interests of teachers and students are identical. But Irish teaching unions give force to this idea every year with their embrace -whether more or less reluctant- of the Minister for Education. For those in the union bureaucracy that might be a good and flattering thing, but it is a disastrous state of affairs for teachers and students, and for society more generally.