Teachers at a Language School Push for Their Union to Be Recognised

Eoin O’Dowd rolls a cigarette on the steps of Delfin College, his dark red hair poking out from under a black beanie with Unite stitched across the front.

It’s just after 9am. A little more than 20 people are spread out across the path in front of the Delfin English School on Parnell Square in the north inner-city, holding Unite trade union flags and placards saying “Official Dispute”.

Monday marks the second day of half-day work stoppages for teachers at the school. The first one was a week earlier.

Teachers saying the school won’t recognise their trade-union membership. Hence the stoppages.

“We need the union to be recognised. Then, once that happens, the dialogue can start,” says O’Dowd.

Delfin English School did not reply to queries sent last week and this week about whether or not they intended to recognise unions in the school and why.

Being Recognised

Getting union recognition is the first step to improving the sector, said Colm Ardiff, another teacher at Delfin, a few days before the protest. Ardiff has taught at Delfin for three years.

Legally, employers are not obliged to recognise trade unions. Ireland has, instead, a voluntary system.

ELT Advocacy, a group representing the English-language teaching sector, recently put up an online spreadsheet that teachers can anonymously fill in to compare rates of pay in various schools in Dublin. People can also say whether their school recognises a union.

So far, two of 60 schools definitely recognise unions, and three definitely don’t, the sheet says. For the rest, the field is blank.

Last week, Delfin English School sent an email to students informing them that the school would be closed until 12:30pm on Monday.

“We are happy to continue our discussions with our teachers, through our teacher forums or one to one interactions to resolve any issues they might have,” it said.

The email said it had granted teachers five of their eight demands, which were brought to the school earlier in the year.

Demands

On Friday, teacher Shane Ryan sat at a cafe close to the school after work.

“Some [demands] were granted, like sick pay, which is necessary [for] a job where you’re constantly in contact with people who are getting sick,” he says.

This was after meetings with college officials and “four teachers with no negotiating experience”, he says.

The school hasn’t met with teachers and their union representatives yet, Unite regional officer Brendan Byrne said by phone last week.

Unite requested that Delfin meet with them at the Workplace Relations Commission back in November 2018, but the school refused, Byrne says.

“People really are just fed up,” says Byrne. “They’ve tried as best as they can to get to the employer to engage. They want to show the employer that they’re serious.”

Ryan says: “All we ever asked for was to sit down, plain and simple.”

“If you can’t afford to give teachers a pay raise, that’s fine,” he says. “Show us the necessary finances, we’ll talk about what we can do.”

The school said in its email to students that its starting rate of €19 per hour is “one of the highest in the sector in Ireland”.

At the moment, Ryan says on Friday, the teachers at Delfin haven’t said how much they want their hourly pay to increase to.

“I came in on much higher than €19,” says Ryan. “People who have been there longer than me, I learned afterwards, are on €19.50.”

There is no official pay scale for the sector, something the Delfin teachers want to see, he says.

Pay and Conditions

“I’m teaching here six years,” says Laurence Reddin, stood on the path holding a large red flag.

“Originally for teachers, this was a summer job, a part-time job,” he says, as his colleagues blow on vuvuzelas or cheer when cars honk. “That’s changed. Now you have permanent teachers looking for permanent conditions.”

During the Christmas period, the school is closed for two weeks. “I’m forced to sign up to the dole,” he says.

Other teachers aren’t so lucky, says Shane Ryan, who has been at Delfin since March 2018.

Last Christmas, he didn’t qualify for jobseekers benefit, he says, because – having left Ireland during the recession to teach English in Spain and China – he hadn’t racked up enough PRSI contributions.

Others may have the PRSI credits but still be rejected, he says. “Because the welfare office doesn’t recognise it as being unemployed,” he says.

Says Ardiff: “It makes January a very tough month. Sometimes January can be a five-week paycheck here and the last week is desperate.”

There’s also the issue of unpaid break-time, says Brien. Teachers aren’t paid for 15-minute breaks between classes.

For a full day, this is means a teacher doesn’t get paid for an hour of work, he says. “You do an hour and a half, a 15-minute break, an hour and half … and you do that four times.”

They’ll get paid for six hours, when they should be paid for seven hours, he says.

This doesn’t include the unpaid preparation time. “I get paid for 21 hours,” Ryan, who is doing a part-time master’s as well, says. “But I work maybe 25.”

According to the Organisation of Working Time Act, there is no entitlement to be paid for breaks.

But other schools have paid breaks, says Ryan. He says he and other Delfin teachers have been meeting with teachers from other colleges where they discuss conditions.

There’s also the issue of zero-hour contracts, something new legislation has not resolved for the English-language school teachers, says Ardiff.

Without a set-hour contract, teachers are not entitled to pensions and getting a mortgage is difficult.

“They’d laugh me out of the bank,” says O’Dowd at the protest. “Any prospect of a future is not happening until we begin the process of conversation.”

The loss of pay during the work stoppages will make will “make things difficult”, Reddin says on Monday.

“More difficult than they already are,” he says. “I think most teachers find it difficult to pay the bills, make ends meet.”

Other Tracks

A report commissioned by the Department of Education, written by former ASTI president Patrick King, and published back in June looked at how a minimum set of standards for the industry could be established.

It recommended setting up a Joint Labour Committee – a group that regulates the conditions of employment and sets minimum rates of pay for employees.

Its membership is appointed by the Labour Court and made up of both employers and employees. The chair is appointed by the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation.

The Patrick King Report recommended that trade unions Unite, SIPTU and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions be allowed to participate. Representing the schools, the “employers”, would be the Progressive College Network, the Independent Language Schools Group, and Marketing English Ireland (MEI), which Delfin is a member of.

MEI CEO David O’Grady declined to comment on the stoppages at Delfin.

“MEI will be participating in Labour Court proceedings on 4 October regarding the proposed establishment of a Joint Labour Committee for the ELT sector,” he said.

“As part of those proceedings, MEI will be making a detailed submission,” he said.

Byrne, the organiser, says after hearing submissions from employers and employees, the court “makes a decision on whether or not it’s feasible and practical to have a JLC for the sector”.

“Then,” he says, “they bring all the parties together to negotiate what that agreement will look like”.

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Aura McMenamin: Aura McMenamin is a city reporter covering the south side of the city, and jobs. You can reach her at aura@dublininquirer.com.

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