Neil Munro reports on the EIS's 'high stakes' strategy following the union's special conference in Glasgow
SENIOR FIGURES from the Educational Institute of Scotland were looking for further assurances on pay and conditions yesterday (Thursday) as they entered what are expected to be last-ditch negotiations before the parliamentary and council elections in May.
The leadership will have been influenced by a special conference in Glasgow last weekend where delegates expressed moods that ranged from scepticism about a satisfactory outcome to outright hostility to a settlement that links pay to any deterioration in conditions of employment.
The positive aspects to the management's package were, however, spelt out and the chief reservations appeared to centre on the implementation of a 35-hour week and the additional 70 hours a year that teachers would have to work to move beyond the basic grade.
Reassurances from the education authority leaders on working hours in particular could clinch a deal, as the minds of EIS negotiators are clearly being exercised by the potent threat to collective bargaining if there is no agreement.
The Government plans to consult on the future of the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee and May Ferries, a former EIS president, put the official view when she warned: "If the SJNC is abolished, the statutory protection for our conditions of service goes with it."
Malcolm Maciver, the salaries convener, appeared to be softening up delegates for an eventual deal when he assured them that "no sell-out is being stitched up" and any final decision would be made "in the staffrooms of Scotland", through a membership ballot.
"The stakes being played for are not insignificant," Mr Maciver said. A key decision for the EIS negotiators will be whether they recommend any deal in a ballot, since it will almost certainly be a key management demand that they do.
Although the leadership left the conference relieved that it had seen off two left-wing attempts to derail the negotiations, the first victory was narrower than expected. Delegates voted by 135 to 117 against a combined move by Dumfries and Galloway, Fife and North Lanarkshire local associations to concentrate solely on a straight cost-of-living salary claim of 8 per cent, backed by strike action if necessary.
The second move, to pull out of the negotiations and reject the EIS's counter-proposals, was more comfortably defeated by 141 votes to 109. The union is, however, still committed to take industrial action in pursuit of its 8 per cent no-strings claim, but only if the current talks collapse.
Leading union figures played down the chances of agreement, but warned that "new Labour's young men in suits" would have a field day if the union walked out of negotiations. Ms Ferries stressed: "Just because we are prepared to discuss does not mean there will be a favourable outcome."
Willie Hart, secretary of the EIS in Glasgow, who gave the warning about men in suits, went further and predicted the discussions "would run into the sand".
Drew Morrice, secretary of the North Lanarkshire association, acknowledged that the membership faced one of its "most difficult scenarios" in balancing the threat to negotiating rights against the threat to conditions.
George Rubienski, a leading executive council member, said the chances of a satisfactory outcome from the talks were "slim".
The two sides of the argument lined up predictably on the pragmatic and fundamentalist wings, the only unexpected contribution coming from Sonia Kordiak, the union's Midlothian secretary, who ended up on the rebels' side.
Ms Kordiak supported continuation of the current talks but argued that the leadership's approach would make pursuit of the 8 per cent no-strings claim dependent on the breakdown of the wider negotiations. "I understood the two were to be pursued together," she said.
The executive council largely rested its case on issues of presentation and tactics although some - notably Peter Andrews, a former national president - accused opponents of lying to members.
The leadership was clearly worried that a successful attempt to pull out of national talks would leave the institute "naked in the negotiating chamber", as Frank Healy, secretary of the union in East Dunbartonshire, put it.
Mr Hart said a walkout would be seen as "a massive display of bad faith even if it would give some of us a buzz".
But the left's plea that the EIS should be more concerned with its credibility among a demoralised and divided membership than with the Government or local authorities appears to have struck a chord. The conference agreed to mount a "high-profile campaign" to counter media "misinformation" about teachers and teaching.
The campaign would include a defence of negotiating rights and a ballot for industrial action if any move is made to dismantle the existing SJNC.