I’m an English language teacher, so how would I introduce the topic of trade unionism to a class? Maybe some prompt pictures, a short video, a quote, or perhaps we could try a word association game? You know how it works. Of course, I would also ask the students what they know about unions. We actually did a similar activity at an ELT Advocacy open meeting last year. The teachers who were present got into groups and we brainstormed our vision for a better ELT sector. The ideas from that meeting went on to form our Ten Point Charter.
So how would you complete this sentence? Trade unionists are…? militant! communist! bad! outdated! ineffective! Oh. Really? Those are not the words I would use to describe my mother, yet she was the very first chair of her branch, an organiser who was proud to be in a union. Nor words I would use to describe my father, who as a public sector worker was a member of a union for his entire working life. Nor words I would use to describe myself, a proud member of the Unite ELT Branch, or my fellow members. But yet they are words I’ve heard whispered, used behind my back to describe us or to dismiss ELT Advocacy’s efforts to encourage people to join the union. Lately, I’ve done a lot of talking about teacher’s rights and I don’t think it’s a taboo subject. So let’s talk about these things.
Three weeks ago, I was at a press briefing in Buswells Hotel in Dublin. We were there to speak to TDs and senators (members of the Irish parliament) about the scandal of bogus self-employment in our sector and to lobby for regulation of the ELT sector. We wanted the Ten Point Charter to be included in the bill that will form the International Education Mark (IEM) in Ireland (This deserves and will receive a future blog post of its own). I was really nervous. I’d never done anything like that before. I’m a teacher, not a politician. I’m not used to having a roomful of legislators asking me questions or being interviewed by journalists. I’m better at answering questions about the difference between made of and made from, or how to pronounce comfortable.
To be honest, I didn’t want to be in that situation. It was nerve-wracking and I started wishing the drive for unionisation had happened long before I joined the sector. But we were there to represent English language teachers all over Ireland as well as my colleagues and friends who I didn’t want to let down. Once we had all spoken about the reality of ELT in Ireland (Aileen was amazing, speaking from Japan at midnight via Skype!) it was the TDs turn to ask questions and offer advice. What immediately struck me was that everyone there was commending us for the work we had already done, for joining the union and organising. They wanted us to know how crucial it was that teachers were signing up. They wanted to know how many members we had, and when we thought we’d be able to hit critical mass. Irish politicians who care about worker’s rights are happy to talk about trade unionism because they think that’s what we should be doing and because they know that unions work.
Later that week, I met a historian working at a prestigious university here in Ireland. Despite having a PhD, many years of experience lecturing and having been published in many of her field’s leading journals, she was employed on an academic year-to-year basis, despite working in the same position. As our children played together we discussed the worry of rising rents, house prices and the (in)ability to get a mortgage when you don’t have a permanent job. We compared industries. She was disgusted when I told her that most English Language teachers didn’t have sick or holiday pay and in many cases didn’t have contracts. We talked about what could be done for both our sectors. We both agreed – organise, join the union, collectively bargain. The conversation is happening in academia in Ireland, and people are angry. We now know that, as had been predicted over and over, the lack of basic workers’ rights that exists in English language teaching is spreading to other third level education sectors. People are organising, but it’s up to us ourselves to halt the spectre of precarious work and to mandate change for all teachers and lecturers. We need to stick together.
That same weekend, I was asked to go on the Marian Finucane show as part of a panel discussion on precarious work conditions. I arrived in RTE and met Deborah Reynolds and Clare (surname withheld by request). Deborah works as an early years educator and is part of a campaign to bring together professionals, providers & parents to transform the Early Years Sector, and ensure a professional wage for early years educators. Now we’re in touch and we’ll be working together in the future too. Clare was working for Deliveroo and was pressuring the company into acknowledging that their employees were employees, and not self-employed contractors. All three of us were union members, and had the support of our unions to campaign and lobby and bring about positive change in our professions. We spoke about our lives and our struggles on air with Marian. After we had finished the discussion and were leaving, Marian’s production team were all very supportive and some of them knew of our respective campaigning for our sector. They were all union members.
In some sectors, like my father’s, it’s taken for granted that workers will join a union, but that’s not the case everywhere. The sector we all now work in is becoming more and more dynamic, innovative and professional every year. Things weren’t always this way in ELT. It used to be much worse. Schools were oftentimes run by people who had no respect for anything other than making enormous amounts of money in an inordinately short time. Teachers could be (and were) let go on a whim, or because the boss didn’t like their attitude or they asked for a pay rise. There were no professional standards in the schools and Directors of Studies were mainly expected to get the school through their inspections every two years. Every teacher knows the drill – before ACELS came in, there were more staff meetings, paperwork was inspected more thoroughly, lesson plans had to be handed in promptly, there might be some nice new posters on the walls, but once it was over, things went back to normal. In one place I worked in the past, the Director received a bonus if the school passed its inspection. Of course, it didn’t apply to the teachers. Nowadays the standards that are set for inspections are becoming the day to day norm and that is so encouraging. But we have yet to catch up with our colleagues in public sector teaching in terms of union membership.
The regulatory system of English language teaching in Ireland, ACELS, has had a lot to do with this professionalism, as have organisations like ELT Ireland. But why don’t ACELS inspect our pay slips? Or inspect the staff room at 5.30 or 6pm, to see teachers preparing for the next day, doing unpaid work? The new regulation system has definitely improved and professionalised the industry, but it hasn’t professionalised our salaries. The Department of Education are very clear that they won’t do anything to protect us and help us cast off the shackles of bogus self-employment. However, despite their insistence that we are not the same as primary or secondary teachers, we are regulated by the Department of Education and “all teachers working in language schools must have a Level 7 degree and [have] taken a recognised EFL certificate course.” They tell us that we do not come under the remit of the Department, yet we are fully accountable under the law to ensure we accurately record students’ attendance. If we encounter problems in our working lives, they tell us we need to go to the Labour Court, and for that, guess who we need? Yep, the union. In addition, it’s the union who know that it is the department’s responsibility to insist that schools improve our conditions and they know how, who and when to lobby.
There is an elephant in the room we need to address. Some teachers went to the unions after the school closure crisis of 2014. One union in particular, unfamiliar with the insanity of the terms and conditions of being an ELT, did not serve its members well, and could not protect workers from the mass closures that occurred. It should be pointed out that by the time the teachers went to them, the situation was out of control completely. You don’t hire a safety officer after the nuclear power plant has exploded and expect everything to be sorted immediately. But of course that didn’t help the teachers who ended up losing month’s worth of wages and who had to sign on in the dole office that year. It’s natural for some teachers to still be wary of the unions, based on what happened in 2014. But the strategy applied by the unions at that time didn’t work, and all of us must acknowledge that. In response to the huge international embarrassment, the government’s response was swift, bringing in legislation regarding the school owners, safety measures protecting student fees, and eligible language programmes. That legislation brought in to regulate the industry has removed a lot of the ‘cowboy’ schools but it doesn’t make any mention of our rights as workers. When Unite the Union became involved with the ELT sector, they encouraged us to grow the movement, through meetings and workshops, partly to find out what workers wanted to change about the industry and to help us formulate plans to achieve those aims. Unite the Union and regional organiser Roy Hassey in particular, have done sterling work with teachers. It’s been a steep learning curve to understand the complexities of our (until now, mostly invisible) sector and they have been instrumental in moving our movement forward and towards legislative protection for English language teachers. This is a now a serious movement.
This is what we need unions for; to safeguard us from these kind of things ever happening again, and to advance our rights in our workplaces. We need to get together right now and have these conversations. In the staff room, at lunch, on the night out, whenever there’s a chance. How many hours of unpaid work do you do? Do you think that’s fair? Do you have a contract? Is your contract permanent or fixed term? Do you get sick pay? Holiday pay? Who can help us to get these things? Who can really empower us to make our jobs better, our working conditions better, and make us more relaxed, calmer, happier teachers? You might think that you’re not going to stay in ELT, just like I did 15 years ago. But what if you’re still in ELT in 15 years like me? I’m getting paid 50 cent less per hour than I was when I started. What am I doing about that? Well, there’s only one answer.
To those who will probably think I’m only saying this because I’m the chair of the branch and I want people to join, I say yes, you’re right – of course I want people to join the union because I know it can improve our working conditions. How do I know? Well, my mother, when she first started her job, was told that there was no union for her profession, yet others in her workplace were in a union. It took her a few years but my mother managed to get enough workers to join together to start their own branch of the union. Those of you familiar with ELT Advocacy will know that we were involved in a similar situation last year and we managed to start the very first ELT union branch in Ireland.
How’s my mum doing now? She retired last year after more than 20 years of dedicated service with a public sector pension. My father, who had to take part in industrial action in order to save his pension entitlements, is also retired on a decent pension. Our conversations on this topic are often amusing because they can’t understand why anyone would be wary of joining the union. My mum automatically thinks that everyone from my generation is more liberal than Jeremy Corbyn. A recent conversation went something like this:
Mum: “How can the people who voted for marriage equality be against unions? And ye who welcome people from all over the world. You even married one! So did a load of your mates! What’s wrong with joining a union?”
Me: “Well, I really don’t know, mum.”
Dad: “It’s very simple, remember when you started and there was no union. What happened? Nothing! When you got laid off with a week’s notice what happened? Nothing! Now at least you’re all in it together. Sure look at me and your mother. We’d have never had our entitlements, our pay grades, our pensions if we’d left it up to them (their public sector employers). I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to join one. Where’s the harm in it?”
Me: “I know. I don’t know, dad.”
I want to say one last thing to the teachers who have just finished their CELT/A, or who haven’t been in the industry for long, but who want to stay. Please stay. Have these chats, talk to your friends and family, think about what you want, and how we can achieve it better together. Senior teachers, it’s up to you to educate the new teachers and tell them what it’s really like. Tell them you haven’t had a pay rise in 19 years, or that you have no chance of getting a mortgage, or saving for your pension. Don’t tell them it’s just a matter of getting their foot in the door in a school and they’ll be okay. I don’t know about you, but I can’t continue on wages that have been stagnant for 15 years, earning the same wage I earned in 2002. I can’t go on working in a job I genuinely love, doing hours I don’t get paid for, taking holidays I can’t afford, with a contract that makes it impossible for me to get a mortgage. Worst of all is seeing my children who can’t understand why I have to work late or on Saturdays doing exams just to get by. Things are going to change and we’re going to change them. But we need everyone to think long and hard about collectively organising in their workplaces. If you want it, you need to join the union. There is no other plan. If we don’t do this, it’s a race to the bottom and we’ll be the ones who suffer most and longest. But if we insist on decent working conditions, we can change an entire industry. Right now, today, when you finish reading this, ask yourself these questions, have this conversation, spread the word – it’s not just okay to talk about these things, it’s imperative.
I’ll finish by remembering Mary Manning and the Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strike, the 30th anniversary of which fell two weeks ago. The 11 mostly young people who refused to handle South African goods (on a union instruction) and who were indefinitely suspended, eventually brought about the world’s very first countrywide ban on South African goods and services. They were eventually supported by the people of Dublin, followed by the people of Ireland, followed by the world’s first official boycott of apartheid. Ordinary people, ordinary trade unionists, did a truly extraordinary thing. There is now a street in South Africa names after Mary Manning. As Liz Deasy, another of the 11, said at the time, “if you believe something is right and worth fighting for, you’ll get there in the end.”
Chairperson of the Unite ELT Branch