Schools across Northern Ireland could be facing serious disruption this winter as thousands of teachers look set to go out on strike in a row over pensions.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) is to ballot its 3,000 members here to approve industrial action for November 30. If the move gets the green light, it will be the first time members of the union have gone on strike in its 127-year history.
And any decision to take industrial action could see other teaching unions, which represent 19,000 teachers, follow suit amid warnings to Education Minister John O’Dowd that he is facing a winter of “deep discontent”.
If the move gets the green light, it will be the first time members of the teaching union have gone on strike in its 127-year history.
It follows action by non-teaching staff from Unison — including school cleaners and canteen staff — who are due to take part in a one-day walkout on Wednesday over budget cuts.
Other teaching unions are also expected to ballot for industrial action after warning the Education Minister that an winter of “deep discontent” looms.
Mark Langhammer, director of ATL in Northern Ireland, told the Belfast Telegraph: “We don’t take this step lightly but government pension proposals mean teachers will work longer and get less.
“ATL has never before taken country-wide strike action. It’s not where our members want to be, but we are balloting for action to encourage real negotiations.”
If the ballot is approved, Northern Ireland will join teachers across England and Wales who have already voted for strike action on November 30.
However, concerns have been voiced about the chosen date as it comes just three days before thousands of P7 pupils sit the final AQE assessment and 10 days before the last GL assessment — which are used by the majority of grammar schools and some integrated schools for admitting pupils.
Mervyn Storey, chairman of Stormont’s education committee said: “I understand the frustration of the members of ATL, who for the first time feel they have been put in the position that they have to take this action.
“However, I have never been convinced that striking is the best way to win arguments. It is better to have discussions and negotiations to see how they can, from their perspective, get a fairer resolution to these problems.
“Despite unions trying to minimise disruption, the purpose of a strike is to cause this. There will be an adverse effect, particularly to children sitting tests.”
DUP MLA Jonathan Craig said strike action would be “regrettable”.
“The people that lose out are the children. I can understand people being hugely annoyed with the way central government has been dealing with the pension schemes in the UK. However, I would urge some caution with regards to strike as an action because sometimes it can be counter productive.”
Sinn Fein, education committee member Daithi McKay, said: “Workers do have rights to strike and members of the public will judge this in relation to the circumstances. It remains to be seen how this plays out but before strike action is taken unions will be having a number of meetings with Assembly members to see if we can avert the strike, ensure everyone goes away from the table happy and ensure that the lowest paid workers are looked after.”
Under the government plans, the union claims that teachers’ pensions would be hit with higher contributions for a smaller pension. Mr Langhammer said: “These proposals will create long-lasting damage. A decent pension scheme is part of the remuneration package without which many talented people won’t join or stay in the profession.”
Its also proposed teachers will be expected to work to 68 under proposals to link their retirement age to state pension age.
“The government accepts that firefighters and police officers cannot be expected to work to state retirement age because of the special nature of their jobs. Do we really want 66-year-old primary one teachers or 68-year-olds taking PE?” said Mr Langhammer.
“At just over £9,000 the average teacher’s pension is hardly gold-plated,” he added.\[e.hagan\]See comment, Page 26
ATL will be addressing its members on the government’s pensions proposals this month at venues across Northern Ireland including: City Hotel, Londonderry (11th); Armagh City Hotel (12th); Ramada Hotel, Belfast (13th); Tullyglass Hotel, Ballymena (18th); Silverbirch Hotel, Omagh (19th); Clandeboye Hotel, Bangor (20th).