The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland and the Teachers Union of Ireland revealed the possibility of the move yesterday.
However, while TUI delegates voted by 180 to 115 in favour of a motion on entering talks “immediately” and both unions have recently worked closely on pay and education reform, efforts to fully combine the groups could still prove controversial and may take years to become a reality.
This is partially because, while around 10,000 of its 15,000 members teach at second-level — mostly in the 240 vocational sector schools but also at community and comprehensive schools — TUI also serves academic staff in further education colleges, institutes of technology, and other learning centres.
At the opening session of TUI congress in Kilkenny, general secretary John MacGabhann said having two unions at second level seems increasingly illogical, often absurd and certainly wasteful. “At one time, a merger of the two would have been impractical and unnecessary. That time, I believe, is past.”
Mr MacGabhann said he was certain that TUI members at third level, in adult and further education, and in non-mainstream settings would be better served by a merger of both unions.
At second level, he said, the democratisation of Irish society, a panoply of education law of recent decades and the presence of ASTI and TUI in comprehensive and community schools, gaelcholáistí, community colleges and schools under Educate Together’s patronage argue against what is now an artificial divide.
The unions were among the last in the public service to sign up to the Haddington Road Agreement, although the 17,000-member ASTI went on their own for a final few months after TUI accepted it earlier last autumn. But ASTI president Sally Maguire told delegates at their annual convention in Wexford that their joint lunchtime protest outside second-level schools last month to highlight opposition to junior cycle reforms highlighted how well they can work together.
“Let us use that success and build on it. How much stronger would we be if all our statements, our protests, our negotiations were done with one voice, the 27,000 teachers’ voice.
“It is time for the ASTI and the TUI to join forces and to use that force for the good of all teachers. Let us start now to make the two second-level teacher unions into one strong, united voice for all second-level teachers.”
TUI president Gerard Craughwell was even more upbeat about the potential move, telling his union: “The time has come for both unions to set aside whatever historical differences there were between us… A new union would have real muscle, both within the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and against Government.”
His call appeared to be backed by TUI delegates, who voted by a two thirds majority in favour of allowing its executive committee to “immediately engage” in discussions with ASTI.
However, during a debate preceding the vote, concerns were also raised, with one TUI member warning: “Having a strong union is a good thing. But joining together two weak unions may not be”. He added that “what is needed is a bit more gusto up there [at the executive committee], a bit more fight.”