A planned protest on Trinity’s campus by the three trade unions involved in a dispute with College was postponed because the unions agreed to wait on an upcoming statement from the government on the use of temporary contracts.
The dispute with the College, which centres around the lack of permanent contracts given to administrative and support staff, has attracted considerable public attention. The use of temporary contracts has proved contentious for universities that are intent on reducing the level of control the government has on their relationship with their employees.
While a dispute committee, made up of representatives of Unite, SIPTU and the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), had agreed to organise a protest, it was decided that the unions would await new guidance from the Department of Education and Skills on the use of fixed-term contracts in higher education.
The dispute between Trinity and its administrative and support staff has been continuing for months. However, with talks ongoing and both sides currently engaging, the energy of Trinity’s three trade unions has been focused on finding a solution, rather than organising industrial action. Despite each union having a mandate for strike action, there has been little indication so far from the unions that industrial action is likely on Trinity’s campus – at least while discussions in the Workplace Relations Commission continue.
Such a protest wouldn’t count as industrial action – there would be no disruption to services in College. It would, however, be one of the most visible signs yet of a dispute that has so far attracted little student attention. Speaking to The University Times by email, Cieran Perry, the Secretary of Unite in Trinity, said that the union had, prior to a meeting with the Workplace Relations Commission, “agreed to hold a lunchtime protest to highlight the inherent unfairness of the unilateral decision of college to only offer contracts for support and service staff”.
The issue of fixed-term contracts and Trinity’s employment practices has attracted attention beyond campus, with some politicians raising the issue in the Dáil with the Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton. Indeed, it is the expectation that the issue will be addressed in some way by the government that prompted the unions to delay their planned protest.
The expectation of a note from the Department of Education, Perry said, “put the plans for a protest on hold”.
In an email statement to The University Times, Diane O’Gorman, a spokesperson for the Department of Education and Skills, said the guidance to universities and colleges was currently being worked on and would be issued “as soon as possible”. A recommendation from the Education Sector Oversight Group, an offshoot of the Landsdowne Road Agreement, called for the government to address this issue. The upcoming note will, O’Gorman said, “guide employers” in the third-level sector “when they are considering recruitment issues”.
It remains to be seen what impact such guidance from the government will have on the dispute in Trinity, but the three unions will hope that any advice to universities vindicates their firm opposition to the introduction of temporary contracts.
Even if the government’s guidance is in support of the stance taken by Trinity’s unions, it will not address the wider grievances of Trinity’s administrative and support staff. But it will potentially do much to clarify the appropriate employment practices of Irish universities, which have increasingly been inclined to introduce more casual relationships with their staff.