Fórsa and the Department of Education are due to convene under the auspices of the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) for talks to resolve the ongoing dispute over the pay and conditions of grant-paid school secretaries.
In a lengthy Dáil debate last week the Minister for Education and Skills Joe McHugh TD opened with a demand that current industrial action by school secretaries be suspended before agreeing to participate in WRC discussions.
However, by the conclusion of the debate the demand was dropped, and Fórsa immediately welcomed the opportunity to work to resolve the issues at the heart of this dispute.
Speaking to reporters Fórsa’s Head of Education Andy Pike described events as “a dramatic turnaround.”
"We have the unusual situation of the education minister opening up the debate in the House at 5.30pm saying that the government wouldn't go to the WRC and closing the debate at 7.15pm by changing his mind and saying they would,” he said.
The Dáil debate witnessed significant support from Opposition benches from a range of party and independent TDs.
Dublin South Central TD Joan Collins encouraged school secretaries to join Fórsa, and criticised the Minister’s opening demands to stand down their industrial action:
“School secretaries know from experience that if they and Fórsa accede to this request, they will be drawn back into a process with no conclusion in sight.
“They want to get this dealt with. They want to go into 2020 in the knowledge that they are direct employees of the State. That is their bottom line,” she said.
Andy Pike said the union welcomed the broad support for school secretaries and the opportunity to get into talks: “This is the first positive step towards resolving this issue and making sure that secretaries across the school sector are paid fairly.
“We want to ensure school secretaries and caretakers are afforded the opportunity to work in a system that properly reflects their huge value to the school community,” he said.
School secretary members are continuing to engage in a work to rule which has withdrawn school secretaries from work on public service systems and databases on the basis that, because they are not paid or recognised as public servants, they will refuse to carry out the functions of public servants.
The action is designed to cause significant disruption to the administration of the schools sector without affecting students or parents.
Ahead of the Dáil debate last week, Andy had written to the department seeking a commitment to utilise the services of the WRC to resolve the dispute, and said the department had now had sufficient time to analyse the returns from their survey of school principals.
In an update to school secretaries this week Andy said one key aspect of the referral to the WRC is the willingness of school employers to participate in the process: "This is important as for the dispute to be addressed by the WRC and potentially the Labour Court under the Industrial Relations Acts, the school employers must be willing to participate in the process.
"The Department of Education maintains whilst it determines access to public service pay and pensions, it is not the employer of school secretaries or caretakers and therefore cannot negotiate contracts or conditions of employment.
"Therefore the WRC process cannot commence unless school employers are also involved in the process. The Department of Education and Skills will now ascertain if the school management bodies are prepared to represent school employers in the negotiations," he said.
Andy further advised that the department has yet to conclude analysis of their recent survey of school employers on the potential costs of the claim and state they will not be able to commence discussions for another week. "The WRC has asked the parties to reconvene on Tuesday 15th October by which time the Department should have completed their analysis of costings and will also have ascertained if the school management bodies are prepared to represent schools in this process. The WRC will then determine if the referral can proceed in the normal manner with the option of referral to the Labour Court if necessary," he added.
Fórsa informed the WRC and the Department of Education that the current industrial action would continue until such time as a formal WRC process, as outlined last week, actually commences.
Andy said Fórsa will attend next week to ascertain if there is a basis for formal talks using the WRC and the Labour Court. "Until then the industrial action will not be escalated but will continue in its current form. Fórsa members in the Civil Service Division will be advised not to take on any work that would normally be done by school secretaries for the duration of the dispute," he said.