By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — The Irish government is facing the largest challenge yet to its pay strategy as the 16,500 strong Association of Secondary Teachers held a one-day strike Tuesday as part of seven days of industrial action this month in support of an across-the-board 30 percent pay increase.
More than 600 schools with more than 350,000 pupils were hit by the dispute that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern described as a return to the "old way of doing business."
He said the teachers were entering into "the type of disputes which were too much a part of our past."
He took the unusual step of writing an article for a newspaper urging the teachers to reconsider their action. He ruled out any pay increases outside the terms of the national pay deal.
Teachers say they have fallen behind by 20-25 percent on pay rates and are seeking a special deal in recognition of what they describe as their special role as the prime movers in educating people for the booming economy.
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The taoiseach has urged them to negotiate within the terms of the PPF but both sides appear to be digging in
Already there is a row about payment during the dispute that may end up in the High Court.
ASTI accepts that its members will not be paid for the nationwide strike, but it regards a ban on schoolyard supervision and substitution for absent colleagues on six other days in the next three weeks as a work-to-rule and the withdrawal of work done on a voluntary basis.
However, the Department of Education says that if the action forces stoppage of classes and closure of schools, pay will be docked.
ASTI’s general secretary, Charlie Lennon, described the taoiseach’s intervention as "extremely unhelpful."
The teachers have already received a 5.5 percent increase under the PPF — even though they had pulled out of the negotiations — and a 3 percent award under a previous agreement.
Lennon said the 5 percent could be regarded as "a payment on account," but it was inadequate as a cost-of-living increase for this year.
He said the PPF benchmarking process the taoiseach said ASTI should use was only going to report next year and it may or may not provide salary increases two years later.
Other public sector workers had negotiated increases in excess of the PPF terms. "Why are the teachers being isolated?" he asked.