By Padraig Mulholland, NIPSA President (personal capacity)
Building supervisors, cleaners, catering staff, drivers, classroom assistants, teachers and every other member of education staff face a massive threat to their wages and terms & conditions of employment. The legislation proposed by the Northern Ireland Assembly to restructure education and introduce a new education authority for Northern Ireland – the Education & Skills Authority (ESA) – is a ticking time bomb set to destroy current terms & conditions of employment and throw education workers back to the 1920’s.
The legislation, if left unchanged, will allow every single one of Northern Ireland’s 1,200 schools to set its own salaries, hours of employment, number of leave days etc. Gone will be the common pay and terms & conditions for teaching staff and the common pay and terms & conditions for non-teaching staff.
If implemented, this decision by the Northern Ireland Assembly MLA’s will have a shattering effect on Northern Ireland-wide staff negotiating structures, as each school will be entirely autonomous with merely the requirement to meet the law. Essentially what this means is that employers will be able to treat you like rubbish as long as they treat everyone else like rubbish as well. This new system will mean that schools right next to each other will be able to set different pay rates. It is not hard to imagine how this will work out as school budgets are cut by the Assembly. School boards of governors and staff will be left to fight it out as the Assembly sits back and says it has nothing to do with them as all powers are delegated to schools. Already existing ‘them and us’ divisions in education will become even worse as richer schools will be able to offer better wages and give better terms & conditions of employment thereby creating a better working and learning environment. Schools in working class areas will fall behind – further deepening the crisis in children’s education.
For education board HQ staff, prospects are grim as well. Board HQ staff will no longer be part of a large group of thousands of education workers with significant industrial strength. Instead, they will be a small group of a few hundred who will have to find new ways to defend their terms & conditions in ever more difficult and isolated circumstances.
The impact of this legislation on education workers is so bad that even the right-wing Tory government in England and the equally right-wing Fine Gael/Labour government in the south of Ireland have not dared to attempt anything similar. It is not yet clear that the NI Assembly deliberately set out on this road, but they can no longer argue that they did not know where they are going as the non-teaching trade unions made clear the reality when they addressed the NI Assembly Education Committee on 25 February 2013. If this legislation goes through unchanged it will be because NI politicians have taken a conscious decision to attack education workers’ pay, pensions and terms and conditions.
Meeting the Education Committee was a first important step. Now the trade unions, teaching and non-teaching, must shake themselves from their lethargy and stop hoping that it will never happen and get on with publicising the issue to members who are largely unaware of the disaster awaiting them. In addition the unions must mobilise members, lobby politicians and if necessary take industrial action to defend the most basic rights of members to have common terms & conditions of employment. To do otherwise would be a betrayal of epic proportions.