GERARD HOWLIN: The history is stark: Talk of equality among teachers is nonsense

Services are shortchanged to retrofit post-crash public servants with boom-time expectations, writes Gerard Howlin

MOST schools are back today and for some it’s a first day in Big School. A lot to learn and a way to go for sure.

Schools are vexed places, however. Teachers aren’t happy and issues about pay were ratcheted up the agenda in curious statements from Mary Mitchell O’Connor and Thomas Byrne.

She is a junior minister at the Department of Education but sits at the Cabinet table as a super junior. He is the Fianna Fáil spokesman on education.

Both went beyond the stated policies of the respective collectives they are part of on teachers’ pay. It’s a case study in how to make up policy on the hoof, get public attention but leave the public interest in the dust.

Basically new teachers start on a lower point of the same scale than their seniors. So they all end up equal at the top of a 27-point scale, but since 2011 it takes newer
teachers longer to get there.

Some of the difference has been recouped but some still remains and this is the nub of the teachers’ campaign of equal pay for equal work. There is equality of course, and that’s a porous term for teachers. Then there is timing.

The timing is acute. One teacher union has rejected Lansdowne Road II. Atypically it’s the INTO. That’s Big School. The Asti a seasoned rejecter is expected to follow suit as is the TUI. That’s democracy in progress now.

Politicians understand acutely, the heightened sensitivities surrounding ballots, especially ones dealing with industrial relations.

Mary Mitchell O’Connor, a primary school principal until her election to the Dáil in 2011, waded in regardless. She was emphatic. Teachers doing the same work deserve equal pay. That would cost €70m for teachers alone. But that’s pie in the sky. It can’t be done for teachers only. 

Whatever is done must be applied equally across the public service, or havoc arrives. That’s €200m extra every year. It’s real money and requires hard choices, not least the choice of what is to be left undone in education and elsewhere, to pay for it.

But when it’s time to step up to the microphone there is no time for deliberation. She wouldn’t hold the line. Byrne was determined to cross it.

In the meantime, the Government the minister serves in, and the Cabinet she sits with has, as a core policy aim, the pay agreement colloquially called Lansdowne Road II. 

It’s expected to pass comfortably, albeit without teachers. It has a commitment to examine issues affecting newer entrants which follows on a significant move back towards, but not full pay equality.

This raises the issue of what equality means. In a system based on 27 increments, it clearly doesn’t mean equal pay for equal work. More profoundly, the current package of pay and pensions is based on a series of massive differences among public servants, including teachers, depending on when they joined.

Those pension changes took place in 1996, 2004 and 2013. They are irrevocable and far more profoundly affect lifetime earnings than the differentials in the pay scale now.

Those can be caught up on by new entrants, over a few years. Pension changes are a life sentence. There is no parole. I hasten to add, there shouldn’t be either. But talk among teachers of equality is nonsense.

The history is clear. At every juncture they pulled up the ladder to benefit incumbents, over new entrants.

They correctly state they didn’t vote for the latest inequality on the pay scale, which was imposed by the troika. But they did acquiesce. As a former teacher who in retirement will presumably enjoy the better benefits of her vintage, Mary Mitchell O’Connor may be plagued by survivor’s guilt. But she is no paragon for equality.

Her’s is a generation that sold the pass at every turn. Now the taxes of newer teachers, taken from more modest salaries must pay in-part for the more generous pensions of more senior colleagues. It’s galling.

But I am not prepared to be stuck with the bill to assuage the difference. I begrudge that services are short-changed to retrofit post-crash public servants with boom-time expectations. Infamously it was the INTO’s Joe O’Toole who compared benchmarking to an ATM machine. It’s over; or it should be.

The intrusion of Fianna Fáil’s Thomas Byrne when interviewed by RTÉ’s Cormac Ó hEadhra last Thursday was a case study in how stuff happens. He reiterated his press release of the previous day.

Fianna Fáil is strongly in favour of equality. There is an issue to be addressed and the Government must tackle it, and so on and on.

Indeed there is an issue to be addressed. It says so in Lansdowne II. The critical issue is how, over what period and at what cost to other policy choices.

Bryne’s statement had contained enough ardour to show cause. In the back and forth of questions with Ó hEadhra he went a critical step further and said it should be done over two budgets. That’s a big new Fianna Fáil spending commitment right there, just like that. It wasn’t stated in his press release of the previous day and it hadn’t been stated previously.

The INTO’s deputy general secretary Noel Ward who was on air, lapped up the cream as it splashed into the saucer. Framing industrial relations that hold, like budgets, is a complex art. How O’Connor and Byrne have encouraged a militant cohort in the teacher unions remains to be seen. The net issue is not whether they reject Lansdowne II, which they will. It is whether they abide afterwards by its collective acceptance.

After Monday, September 18, when the result is announced, will they talk or will they walk? The walkers must be emboldened now.

Two days later the Dáil resumes and the next big issue is the budget. There are more needs than can be met. There are external threats that could downsize expectations quickly. That is not to mention stratospheric debt levels for the same exchequer that would add to its base obligations, in perpetuity, a further €200m.

Few care much about the detail of this. But what people do care about is credibility. They make hard and far-reaching decisions in an election campaign about who and what is credible.

Michael Noonan’s commitment last year to scrap USC damaged Fine Gael at the heart of its core narrative — fiscal responsibility.

The issue for Fianna Fáil is not the detail, it’s the way in which critical details of its policies — and fundamentally its figures — seemingly swerve in midstream.

Fine Gael, O’Connor’s angst notwithstanding, has more to gain by holding the line. Fianna Fáil swapped creative ambiguity for specific commitment. That now has to be made to add up. More profoundly it signals to the public sector unions; its game on again. That doesn’t make sense.


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