By Caitríona Ní Chatháin
In the second week of the Easter Holidays, the three Teacher Trade Union Congresses took place in cities across the country. I attended the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) congress which took place in Cork City as a delegate for my branch. The TUI has over 20,000 members and represents second-level and third-level educators, including those in sectors such as Youthreach and Further Education and Training (FET).
As usual, workload, pay and conditions were the main features over the course of the three days, with the added edge of the housing crisis and the spiralling cost of living vs low pay adding a sense of anger and frustration among many of the younger delegates who spoke at the podium. Indeed, the motto for Congress 2023 was “Recruit, Retain, Reclaim” pointing to some key issues affecting teachers at this moment. Teachers are leaving the profession due to an overlap of factors, among them: a lack of career progression (due to legacy austerity cuts that have not been restored), a lack of full-time contracts, a lack of job security and the complete lack of affordable housing making it impossible to live in the vicinity where they work.
Pushing teachers out
Indeed, according to survey results released by the union, just 31% of teachers received a full-time contract upon starting their career, essentially making it impossible for most teachers to survive independently (after six years of college) if they are to go into a school and teach! Not to mention finding a place to live while they are doing their job. Of those renting, almost all (98%) said it would be difficult to find new accommodation in the locality, with 75% saying that the housing crisis was having an adverse effect on their students. It is any wonder then that four out of ten teachers said that they aim to leave the profession.
Of course, when the Minister for Education, Norma Foley, addressing Congress, extended her gratitude for the “commitment and work from individual teachers and staff at school level to support our children and young people with additional needs” she did not mention that her party and government were actively pushing thousands of these teachers, children and young people into homelessness or housing insecurity by voting to end the no-fault eviction ban just weeks previously. While she spoke, a number of delegates held up signs protesting homelessness, evictions, pay inequality and the wholly exploitative Leaving Cert reforms.
Although an important emergency motion was passed calling on the union not to accept any more “below inflation” pay deals, this is a low bar for what the leadership should be fighting for and comes in the wake of a series of defeats, especially for those teachers who are still on a lower pay scale. In fact, by walking away from the issue of pay equality, and by claiming that pay equality has been effectively solved through sectoral bargaining, the trade union leadership are alienating an entire section of lesser-paid teachers (LPTs) who do not have the same bonuses or pension entitlements as their colleagues.
In light of such hardships and setbacks, it comes as no surprise that teacher recruitment companies from overseas are very active in Ireland, with one Australian recruitment drive currently holding expos in cities all around the country, offering secure teaching jobs while also covering visa, travelling costs and even a €6,000 bonus for relocating to a rural area.
Yet in Ireland, while the government boasts of a €10 billion surplus this year and €16 billion surplus next year, schools and other public services are expected to tolerate chronic underfunding, low wages and staff shortages. This budget announcement should be the clarion call of our unions, to demand immediate and serious investment in all public services, not least education.
What is clearly needed in our union is more organisation from below, active workplace committees who can speak out on the issues affecting teachers on the ground, but also union leaders who are ready to fight for teachers and the communities where they work.