Solidarity with striking school secretaries

By Kate Relihan, INTO activist, Dublin 15

Today school secretaries represented by Fórsa will hold a national one-day strike in conjunction with rallies at the Dáil and the Department of Education later today. Following this one-day strike, FÓRSA school secretaries will escalate their work-to-rule campaign and begin a boycott by refusing to report financial data to the Department of Education. Their work-to-rule which was suspended in October 2019 due to talks at the Labour Relations Commission.

FÓRSA is seeking to address a reprehensible two tier pay system in existence for the last forty years which leaves most school secretaries, predominantly women, earning just €12,500 euro a year and on irregular short-term contracts with many having to sign-on for unemployment benefits during the school holidays.

Secretaries are not mere skivvies and it is high time that they were employed directly by the Department and enjoy the status and benefits of public servants as opposed to temporary contracts at the behest of a Board of Management. They are the face and lifeblood of every school in the country and yet 90% earn as little as €12,500 a year with their hours per week decided by the sum of a grant the Department awards to the school. This compares with salaries of between €24,000 and €44,711 for the 10% paid directly by the Department. No pension entitlements, no entitlement to sick leave, no entitlement to pay increases from public sector pay agreements, no incremental pay increases and the demeaning stance of being forced to sign on during school holidays paint a clear picture of how this government views women and their contribution to society. Dickensian in the extreme!

The government sees fit to pay out €120 million to bondholders in 2019  yet they refuse to release a measly seven million which would put an end to this  appalling inequality and treat all school secretaries as rightful public servants with one pay scale.

A two tier pay scale has become an all too familiar result of the top down bargaining of decades of Social Partnership. Decades of these behind closed doors negotiations by government and union leaders has left the core fundamentals of trade unionism found wanting. Today’s strike by school secretaries sees ASTI, TUI and INTO members crossing the picket line along with SNAs represented by MANDATE and SIPTU along with parents and pupils as all union leaders have instructed their respective members to work as normal! This highlights a disregard for the essence of genuine trade unionism by our trade union leaders, that of solidarity. These trade union leaders are well aware of how few in number and how isolated school secretaries are in this battle. They are wholeheartedly reliant on the solidarity of all school staff to be victorious.

ICTU should have launched an all-out picket in respect FÓRSA strikers and today should see entire schools down tools in solidarity. To quote regional officer of Unite, Susan Fitzgerald who was the official responsible for the recent dispute at Harland and Wolf, “Solidarity has to be a watchword for all workers…the immediate thing to do is to reign in with other workers when they need you. It is the key force in society that can fight for unity and justice.” We all have a stake in the success of other workers who engage in struggle for pay equalisation and none more than teachers who face a similar battle for pay equalisation.

Concretely we must return to the traditions of Connolly and Larkin – of not crossing fellow trade union pickets, of standing proudly in solidarity in recognition that unity is crucial and an injury to one is an injury to all. We must stand strong and dignified together as the only people we can rely on against this vicious neo-liberal government are ourselves.