The ASTI leadership’s decision to make exception to normal rules that would impose a financial penalty on returning members was criticised by some delegates at its annual convention.
But the alternative of continuing to shed members, particularly to those moving to the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) but also to people opting out of any union membership, was described as unacceptable.
Most dual teacher union membership exists in the 136 community and comprehensive (C&C) schools, including 40 community colleges run by education and training boards (ETBs).
But the ASTI convention heard some of the religious-run secondary schools that were previously dominated by ASTI now also have teachers joining TUI.
The union’s total membership fell by nearly 2,000 to 16,440 last year, but the conference was told yesterday numbers were down disproportionately higher in the C&C sector. They dropped by 432, or 12.3%, to 3,079 compared to a 10.5% overall fall from 18,372 to 16,440.
The union’s national organiser Mary Ohle said the biggest issue in C&C schools was the loss of members during industrial action being pursued alone by ASTI last year after TUI ended its participation in the dispute over junior cycle reforms.
“Another issue which caused considerable stress to our members was the negative atmosphere and split in classrooms on different union positions on junior cycle, Croke Park and supervision-and-substitution,” she said.
The union’s standing committee recently agreed to waive the usual penalty, normally up to half a year’s subscription, for anyone who seeks to rejoin during this school year.
Dungarvan delegate Liam O’Mahony questioned if union rules permitted this, although he acknowledged some teachers may have left because joining the TUI gave them access they would not otherwise have had to contracts of indefinite duration (CIDs).
“Others may have left at advanced seniority levels, for reasons best known to themselves, and maybe might have encouraged others to leave as well. People like that, I think, should not be given a blanket re-admission,” he said.
“If we have respect for our union, and for the members that stayed loyal to it, we’re letting down the people who stayed loyal by readmitting up to 2,000 people.”
But Tipperary branch member Noel Buckley said the decision was a wise one.
“We, so far, are the dominant second-level teachers union, but make no bones about it, the TUI is active and aggressive,” he said.
“You might say let the [departed members] swing, and that they didn’t stay with us in solidarity. But if you think long-term, the other big threat we have apart from the TUI [winning members] is de-unionisation.”
The biggest proportional losses have been among teachers in precarious employment, who might have got faster access to job security by being in TUI during the industrial action.
The conference was told that “brand TUI” has become more attractive but that this perception needs to be countered and stewards in dual-union schools supported to sign up new teachers the week they arrive in the staff room.
Kilkenny delegate Fergal Canton said one of the benefits of suspending industrial action last summer was that ASTI members became eligible for CIDs but it was like closing the gate after the sheep left the pen.
“To woo them...back into our union, an attitude of hostility is not the best way to recruit,” he said.
“We’re in a beauty competition between two unions. Carrying an axe and a knife and a gun in your belt is not the best way to attract a partner that you’re looking to be long-term with,” said Mr Canton.