Voice for Teachers’ readers will know that one of our admins is Gregor Kerr. He successfully ran for election to the Teaching Council earlier this year and now he has been persuaded to run for election as President of the INTO. We say persuaded, because that is what happened. Gregor never wants fame or glory (he fits in to VFT very well that way), he is all about teachers and their issues, all about empowerment of others, not about empowering himself.
Gregor has been a trade union, community and political activist for most of his adult life. We decided to interview him about this and about why he has decided to run for INTO President at this time.
As it gets nearer to the time of the election, we will contact other candidates and offer to interview them and post the interviews here on VFT.
We would like this election to be open and inclusive, so if you have any questions that you would like Gregor or other candidates to answer, please feel free to submit them in comments below or as a pm to the page
VFT: Hi Gregor, are you delighted that you were persuaded to run for INTO President?
Gregor: I am actually. When it was first suggested to me I laughed and said no, but as the idea was talked about and as the potential of a campaign became clear, I began to get excited about the possibilities. In the past half century or more there have only been two actual ballots of members on the position of President, once in 1978 and the last twenty five years ago in 1991. The election campaign that is going to happen now provides an opportunity for a conversation about the direction of the union and about a vision of what the INTO should look like.
I hope that we can use the debate that will occur during the election campaign to help advance some issues and to empower and help organise union members. I see this election as being about much more than electing me as President of the union (although that’s obviously a fairly important part of it), I see it as being about working with and energising a layer of activists in the union, about re-building a fighting spirit and about awakening our potential as union members working together to effect change.
Many of us are familiar with hearing members complaining about ‘the union’ and moaning that ‘the union’ hasn’t done anything about issue X, Y or Z. My response to that has always been to say to people that ‘We’ are the Union. We – the members – can take ownership of issues and build campaigns from below, we shouldn’t be relying on the leadership or head office to do it for us. This election campaign provides an opportunity to make more of a reality of that ‘We are the Union’ slogan – to have a dialogue about and to demonstrate in practical terms what it means.
VFT: Why now though? If there hasn’t been an election since 1991, and only two in the last half century, why decide that this year is the time to run?
Gregor: Two reasons really. Firstly I think the democratic deficit – the feeling of a growing divide between the members of the union and the leadership – has never been so great. But secondly, and related perhaps, the energy being currently generated from a new layer of members getting active opens up a huge potential.
On the first of those issues – Congress, for the last number of years has been de-energising and frustrating for many delegates. Battling to get issues affecting members onto the agenda, a feeling that the members’ views as expressed by delegates are often not listened to, that the majority of the CEC and the leadership see their role as being to tell the membership what to think and do rather than to listen to the membership and take instructions from them….
This year, however, Congress was like a breath of fresh air. There was a huge infusion of energy, mainly from Lower Paid Teachers but also in terms of delegates’ input on other issues such as Droichead, Cosán etc. The irony was that that infusion of energy also really showed up the huge divide – the CEC were comprehensively defeated by the votes of delegates on the issue of pay equalisation and the new pay deal, on Droichead, on Cosán. There is something radically wrong with any organisation when the majority of delegates are on one side and the entire leadership is on the other. Yet we’ve seen that in the INTO year after year.
And another reason why now – we are heading into a new round of pay talks. These talks will be crucially important. There is an imperative that pay equalisation must be achieved and the pay cuts imposed on teachers and other public servants be reversed. I believe that in the coming months we have to build a groundswell of action and campaigning from below that will put pressure on both the union leadership and on politicians to face up to these issues. We have to build a campaign that will force the government to the negotiating table.
Thanks to the fantastic work being done by the Project Group and by many Lower Paid Teachers and others, that groundswell has begun. It can either be encouraged and built on, or it can be dampened down. In my view it has to be encouraged and built on. In the case of both of the last two pay deals, the government came to us seeking early talks, this time round we should be demanding that talks happen sooner rather than later. We cannot wait for the end of the Lansdowne Road Agreement, our Lower Paid Teachers can’t afford to wait that long. They have been waiting over five years already.
So an election campaign will inevitably lead to a debate about what it’s possible to achieve in relation to pay, and can contribute to helping to build the groundswell necessary to force early talks and to ensure that what comes out of those talks is nothing less than full pay equalisation – and a definite plan for full pay restoration for the rest of us as well.
VFT: How long have you been an activist in INTO? What campaigns have you been involved in?
Gregor: I qualified as a teacher in 1985, at a time of massive teacher unemployment and a time when substitute and temporary teachers were organising to fight for some of the rights we now take for granted. In my early years in INTO I was a member of both Tallaght and Blessington branches. Having subbed and temped for a number of years I got a job teaching teenage Travellers and was a member of the TUI for a number of years.
When I took up a temporary position (one which eventually became permanent) in what was then Plás Mhuire BNS on Dorset St. in Dublin’s inner city in the early 1990s I re-joined the INTO and became active in Dublin City North branch as it then was. At that time there was a very active Substitute and Temporary Teachers Action Group which campaigned within the union on issues affecting Subs and Temps and in which I became involved. That group was an energising force in terms of bringing new members into activity, and was instrumental in gaining panel rights for temporary teachers. There are many parallels with the dynamism and energy evident from Lower Paid Teachers today.
Indeed that group was also instrumental in campaigning for and eventually winning (albeit as a pilot project in just a small number of areas) a substitute supply panel – temporary teachers employed on year-long contracts and available to cover absences in a number of schools in an area. Unfortunately, this was never advanced past being a pilot project and in recent years it was cut in a cost-saving exercise. Campaigning for the establishment of such panels on a national basis is something we should put back on the agenda.
The school subsequently amalgamated with the neighbouring girls’ school and became St. Mary’s Primary School. The union branch did the opposite – in order to encourage increased participation we split the branch in three, and the one in which I remained was named Dublin North City. At the time I was Chair of District 14 and worked with a small sub-committee to successfully plan and oversee the division of the branch.
Over the years I have been involved in many, many INTO campaigns – a few that spring to mind are campaigns for increased funding; against cuts to DEIS; for the abolition of Section 37.1 of the Employment Equality Act; against the Work Placement programme and subsequently JobBridge; against CEPP (and subsequently Cosán). For over 25 years I have been an active and vocal contributor to Congress on many issues, and – just as importantly – I have supported, encouraged and cajoled many others to get up and speak.
For that length of time I have also been a member of Branch and District Committee, and served as District Chair for a number of years.
I have campaigned against all of the recent pay agreements – LRA, HRA, Croke Park 1 and 2, and indeed have always opposed the concept of ‘social partnership’. I believe that the idea that trade unions, employers and government have some sort of common ‘partnership’ is wrong and that the decades of ‘social partnership’ have blunted our union movement. More often than not I have been on the losing side of many of those pay agreement debates, but I believe that the manner in which I and others have contributed to discussions, have provided analysis of ‘agreements’ and have engaged in robust but fair and honest debate has contributed to the democratic processes within our union. Indeed I have always argued that information produced by head office and by the CEC should present both sides of the argument when we are discussing and deciding on pay deals. I don’t know why we have a situation where all members of the CEC sing from the same hymn sheet on such deals. I don’t think the sky would cave in if we allowed CEC members to campaign either for or against the deals based on their own views and those of the members in their Districts. Seeing a couple of different perspectives coming from CEC members would surely only enhance the democratic process within the union. That’s an issue I’d like to come back to again.
Within the union, and outside it, my underlying, and overarching philosophy has always been to encourage and support members (union members or community members) to get involved in campaigns, to work together and to bring a collective strength to efforts to bring about change. I believe in a leadership that comes from below, in one that relies on a many-headed approach rather than relying on ‘someone else’ to take action or to provide leadership.
Too often too many people expect ‘someone else’ to solve their issues. How often have you heard people saying ‘someone should do something about that’? My belief is that we are all that ‘someone’ and that we should – as well as doing what we can ourselves – support and encourage others to get involved. It’s not always easy for someone to speak up at a meeting for the first time, to volunteer to help organise a picket, to get involved. But a leadership that wants to encourage involvement can create the space in which people can gain the energy and confidence to contribute. And conversely a leadership that’s relatively content with the status quo can do the opposite and can suck the energy from people trying to organise.
So to sum up my attitude – I am vocal at meetings, I encourage others to speak up and to get involved. But after the meeting I’m always there to help organise whatever actions might be decided upon. Take an example – JobBridge. When the Work Placement Programme was first mooted and it became clear that it was envisaged that NQTs would be ‘employed’ via this scheme to complete their probation, many NQTs were outraged. I and others worked with and supported a number of NQTs who successfully (very much against the wishes of the majority of the CEC and head office) won an INTO position of a directive against participation in WPP. When WPP subsequently became JobBridge, a new directive was fought for and issued.
Many of us naively believed that that would be the end of the matter. However a small number of principals continued to advertise JobBridge positions in their schools despite the directive. And when we enquired at Congress as to why this was being allowed to happen, we learned that it was up to individual members to make complaints under the Union’s disciplinary process against principals who we believed to be in breach of the directive. It was a classic case of ‘Someone should do something about that’. So we did. A small number of us began to monitor the JobBridge website and to initiate cases against the principals of schools who advertised teaching positions there.
It wasn’t easy – it involved many hours of work initiating evidence-based complaints; communicating with District secretaries; engaging with Conciliators; preparing for and attending Arbitration hearings (at our own expense initially until we managed – eventually – to bring about a Rule change recently). It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. That work ensured that JobBridge did not gain a foothold in schools for teaching positions and did not become the established route into teaching for our NQTs. Without that work from that small number of people, and the support we received from many others, we could be looking at a very different scenario today. ‘Someone’ had to do it and I’m proud of the fact that I was one of those that did.
VFT: Can you tell us what other campaigns, outside of INTO, you have been active in?
Gregor: One of the first campaigns I was involved in was the Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strike. I was only peripherally involved, attending the picket line on an number of occasions and some of the big protests, but I was hugely impressed by a group of workers who were willing to make a sacrifice and put their livelihoods on the line in support of people suffering injustice on the other side of the world (for those of you too young to remember – RTE produced a great documentary on the issue which you can see at http://www.rte.ie/tv/scannal/Dunnes.html). Looking back now, over 30 years later, I would still label that group of workers as my heroes – people who took a not very easy stance, at great personal cost, because they saw something as being wrong.
In the almost 30 years since, I have been involved in a huge number of trade union, community and political campaigns.
I campaigned for the release of the Birmingham 6 and Guildford 4 in the late 1980s.
In the early 1990s I was a founder member of the Portobello Unemployed Action Group which organised unemployed people to fight for jobs and against the unemployment crisis.
I was secretary of the Federation of Dublin Anti Water Charge Campaigns which successfully fought the introduction of water charges in the early to mid-1990s.
I was a founder member of the Anti-Racism Campaign (ARC) in the late 1990s which campaigned against racism and deportations and for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. ARC campaigned against the introduction of direct provision and I was actually arrested at a peaceful direct action occupation of then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s office in protest against direct provision proposals.
I was secretary of Trade Unionists and Unemployed against the Programme, a cross union group of shop stewards and activists which campaigned against the Programme for National Recovery in the early 1990s and was involved in Trade Union Fightback, which similarly campaigned against ‘social partnership’, and Teachers United, a short-lived grouping which aimed to bring activists together across all 3 teacher unions.
In recent years, I have campaigned against the household tax and water charges, I have been a member of the Greyhound Workers Support Group and worked to support the Paris Bakery Workers when they occupied the premises on Moore Street when the business was closed suddenly, and the group of young, mostly migrant workers were owed thousands of euros in unpaid wages. I was an active participant in the Yes Equality Campaign and I am a member of the Trade Union Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. Like dozens of others, I was arrested at a peaceful direct action protest against water meter installation last year. Again like dozens of others I wasn’t charged with any offence.
That just gives a flavour of some of the things I’ve been involved in – some successful, some not – but the common link is about building competence and confidence, encouraging local organising and encouraging people to become agents of and for change. If anyone wants to do a quick google search of my name they’ll get a flavour of some of the issues.
VFT: Are you a member of any political party?
Gregor: No. I was a member of Workers Solidarity Movement for about 20 years but left it about a year and a half ago. Again, if people want to do a search of the wsm.ie site or just use google they’ll get an idea of some of the things I’ve said, written and been involved in over the years.
VFT: On a light note, do you have any book or music that you would reckon influenced your political views?
Gregor: If you haven’t read ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ by Robert Tressell, first published in 1914, do yourself a favour and do so.
Could I please finish with a paraphrase of a quote from philosopher Albert Camus that sums up my attitude to this election campaign and to the union Presidency –
“Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow
Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead
Walk beside me… and let’s Organise together”