I'll ask readers to cast their eyes across the Irish Sea to the Emerald Isle. Here it would seem that the ATL have been launching recruitment raids on my own union, the University and College Union. This goes back several years. In November 2008, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions heard a complaint made by UCU against the ATL. That complaint accused the latter of recruiting workers in the Further Education sector contrary to the ICTU's constitution. The UCU and its predecessor union had long been recognised by the employers for the purposes of collective bargaining. The Congress's constitution also stipulates that each of its affiliates have a protected sphere of influence from which they may recruit. The UCU's is HE and FE teaching/lecturing and management staff, the ATL's school teachers. As part of the complaint, UCU alleged that they had seen a recruitment email sent from an ATL organiser to UCU members that suggested they also had collective bargaining rights - which was untrue. Furthermore these and other antics came at a time the UCU in Northern Ireland was involved in a dispute with the employers. Basically, what the ATL are accused of doing is akin to Unite recruiters turning up on Unison picket lines and signing them up. It's atrocious behaviour. Some might characterise it as a little bit scabby.
In their reply to the committee, the ATL affirmed the unions' respective spheres of influence and accepted they had no recognition rights in FE in Northern Ireland. As for the email, this was sent because the ATL had entered into an arrangement with another union, the Association of Managers in Education (AMiE) to provide their Ulster members representational services. Of course, said email was "sent in error". In their findings, the ICTU disputes committee found in favour of the UCU and asked the ATL to write to any member recruited from this operation to advise them the union has no bargaining rights in the sector, and the right one to join is the UCU. It also recommended ATL review its procedures to ensure something like this didn't happen again.
Done and dusted? Apparently not. In February this year both unions were back at the disputes committee. This time the ATL were accused of explicitly running a recruitment campaign in FE contrary to the previous findings. Even more damaging, they undermined the UCU by misrepresenting the union's position on the "Deane payment": i.e. FE lecturing pay scales in Northern Ireland. This misrepresentation involved making false claims in their publications inferring that the UCU blocked pay rises for staff in management grades. This is despite ATL (and the employers they represent) having sight of correspondence authored by a government official stating that management grades did not attract a pay increase because they were not included in the employers’ business case. FE pay in N.I. is subject to the government's hard line on public sector pay restraint and thus UCU does not enjoy free collective bargaining over pay in any true sense.
Worse still, since the 2008 ruling ATL subsequently embarked on a poaching assault on UCU’s higher education membership. Once again this is a sector for which the ATL has no recognition rights. The ATL poached members in Stranmillis teacher training college directly from the UCU while the union was involved in a UK-wide pay dispute.
The ATL for their part disputed the demarcation established by the previous disputes committee. In 2011 they had taken over AMiE and argue they had assumed their representational rights, up to and including collective bargaining, in FE. They also denied knowledge of the dispute at Stranmillis but conceded they should not have begun recruiting. They also deny they set out to undermine the UCU's position.
This is where it starts to get interesting. The Congress committee only in part accepted the ATL's acquisition of representational rights. It held that the union now possesses rights on behalf of staff on 'director grades' but not for the sector as a whole. They remain the province of the UCU. It also found it should not have accepted members from the UCU during the course of a dispute. Therefore the ATL should contact these people and direct them back to the appropriate union and, again, address its processes and procedures.
In official correspondence I've seen with the ICTU dated 9th June, the ATL's Northern Ireland director had this to say in response to the findings:
Dear Patricia,By way of a summary then, the ATL were dragged twice to the highest trade union body in Ireland to undergo an adjudication process after attempts at mediation and resolution failed. On the second of these occasions, ATL accepts it shouldn't have undertaken a recruitment raid on UCU members during a dispute, but has flicked ICTU the Vs and has pledged to keep hold of them. More than that, it no longer recognises the authority of the Congress to decide what demarcation boundaries there are, nor the established arrangements from which staff in that sector - be they UCU, newly minted ATL, or non-union - benefit from.
Thank your [sic] for your letter of 3rd June. I am writing in response on behalf of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (inclusive of our leadership section, the Association of Managers in Education). As set out in our earlier letter of 15th May, ATL neither accepts nor is willing to implement the findings of the Disputes Committee 01/15 report. The report has, for us, little traction in the real world and would be injurious to the interests of our union.
ATL recognises that this may put in question its continued membership of ICTU. As such, I should advise that ATL will cease our membership with the ICTU with immediate effect and that ATL personnel and representatives will withdraw from all Congress representative bodies and committees. [Emphasis mine]
It is with regret that we are obliged to take this action. It is, nonetheless, inevitable and unavoidable in the circumstances.
Director, ATL, Northern Ireland
What then is going on here? It is my understanding that there has been some bad blood between Mark Langhammer of the ATL and the UCU. In 2012, the Northern Irish government commissioned this report into industrial relations at the North West Regional College based in Derry. This is something of a "super-college" with around 25,000 students. However, there were persistent tensions between the UCU and NWRC management, reflecting a general lack of trust between staff and bosses. The remit of the report was to investigate the college's culture and communication practices. It found that staff felt intimidated and were micromanaged by people on senior grades, and recommended a transformation of the culture whereby management shifted its attitude and they and the union jointly collaborated in joint fora and the like. Hardly "kick out the bosses and occupy the factory!" stuff.
However, in a statement put out shortly before the report's publication in February 2013, Langhammer (then with his AMiE hat on, representing the NWRC's directors) denounced it in a laughable press release. Here are some highlights:
"The issue is simple. It comes down to who should run the College? Should it be the governing body, through its management team? Or should it be the infantile left within a Luddite union stuck in the habits and mores of old style 1970’s bargaining?" [Author's emphasis]
"What the College has been faced with is an ongoing battery of engineered, manufactured, complaints and tribunals. What the North West public need to understand is that this is a concerted, determined, and irresponsible campaign of disruption by a backward thinking union led by the infantile left."
"His draft report is consequently one-sided, biased, inaccurate, runs well outside his terms of reference and is, in parts, potentially actionable. It gratuitously identifies individuals in a manner that can only cause them reputational damage."
"... the McConnell report is a “stitch up” - a “hatchet job” that has given the college union their ‘pound of flesh’ and can only encourage more of the same."
"I have direct and personal experience of the sort of frivolous, vexatious and malicious grievance-mongering generated as the stock-in-trade of the complaints factory of this college based union branch."
Were I a member of AMiE, I'd be embarrassed that the boss of my union would write something like this in an official capacity. The frothing antipathy Langhammer shows toward the UCU - albeit a local branch - does provide some context for their behaviour after the ICTU investigation. One might draw the conclusion that his petulance in "the interests of our union" is merely cover for a smash and grab on the UCU driven by vindictiveness and revenge.
I appreciate that as far as the UK goes, these days Northern Ireland is regarded as a backwater peripheral to "proper politics". Even Question Time hasn't bothered filming an episode there for the last two years. But that doesn't mean it's not without significance. What has happened is the equivalent of the ATL turning round to the TUC here and telling them to do one as it targets the membership of other unions in aggressive and - yes - scabby recruitment campaigns. So the question is where's the wider union in all this? Withdrawing from the ICTU is no little matter. It's not like a local branch getting in a huff with the local trades council and not bothering to send next year's affiliation cheque. The evidence suggests that ATL’s tactics in Northern Ireland are being used to test the efficacy of hostile strategies in boosting ATL’s membership. An experiment in the ends justifying the means. In April of this year the General Secretaries of Unison, GMB, and Unite had cause to author a joint letter to ATL general secretary Mary Bousted about her union's recruitment practices among school support staff - an area outside of their demarcation. The recruitment activity in Northern Ireland under Mark Langhammer’s watch is specifically referenced.
What the trade union movement needs to know is:
1. How long has Mary Bousted been aware of the situation in Northern Ireland?
2. Why she backs the actions taken by Langhammer (we can only assume she does).
3. Why the ATL's disaffiliation to the ICTU has not been put to the membership?
4. To what extent the raids on UCU members in Northern Ireland are known to ATL lay officers and activists in the province and the rest of the UK?
5. Is this isolated, or part of a smash 'n' grab recruitment model set to be rolled out elsewhere?
Of course, this is of direct import to the informal talks going on between the ATL and NUT. As the latter is known for being something of an activist union with a broad left-leaning membership, how are they going to view scabrous goings ons in Northern Ireland by the union they're in unity talks with? Not with unalloyed enthusiasm, I'm sure.
The ATL senior leadership has some very serious explaining to do.