Demands for equal pay for equal work look set to dominate the annual conferences of Ireland's three teacher unions, which take place in Belfast, Cork and Killarney over the next three days.

The Irish National Teachers' Organisation, which represents primary school teachers, began its annual congress in Belfast yesterday.

The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland and the Teachers' Union of Ireland, which represent second-level and some further and higher education teachers, got under way in Killarney and Cork today.

The issue of unequal pay structures is one that now affects school staff rooms across the country.

Teachers recruited since 2010 are on pay scales significantly lower than their colleagues.

Using payroll data received from the Department of Education, RTÉ News estimates that up to 15% of all teachers are on the lower rates, and that proportion is rising every year as additional teachers are recruited.

All three unions are now focusing their efforts on whatever national pay deal is struck to replace the current Lansdowne Road Agreement.

The ASTI and the TUI will both debate motions opposing any new deal that does not guarantee pay equalisation.

Members of the TUI have said they are prepared to take industrial action if pay inequality for teachers appointed after 2012 is not addressed in upcoming pay negotiations. 

The union said teachers who were appointed within the past five years are being paid up to €10,000 less per annum than colleagues doing the same job who were appointed before then.

The issue has been made a priority by the TUI, which said that inequality must end.

It described the lack of investment in the third level sector as a "crisis".

It is proposing a 1% levy on corporate profits to raise more than €500 million per year to address this.

But with Ireland's corporate tax rates already under pressure elsewhere, this is likely to be a suggestion the Government will pass on.

The TUI will debate a number of resolutions on pay tomorrow. Among them, a call for the union to recommend rejection of any pay agreement that does not achieve a number of demands, including equal pay for equal work.

Another TUI motion instructs the union to ballot for industrial action in October, if so-called "discriminatory rates" are still in place in September.

TUI General Secretary John MacGabhann told delegates that some progress has been made in addressing inequalities in new entrants' pay.

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Mr MacGabhann said the union's campaign will continue until full pay restoration has been achieved. He warned that a mandate for industrial action is in place and will be used if needed.

The Minister for Education usually addresses delegates at all three teacher conferences. However this year, the geographical distance between the INTO congress in Belfast and the ASTI in Killarney means Richard Bruton will not get to Killarney in time to address delegates there.

Mr Bruton will address TUI delegates in Cork tomorrow.

Dept accused of showing disdain toward teacher morale

The ASTI convention opened with a motion calling on the union to "vigorously oppose" any future national pay agreement that does not guarantee equal pay for equal work.

In an address to delegates ,  ASTI President Ed Byrne defended the union's decision to remain outside of the LRA and accused the Department of Education of showing distain and indifference towards teacher morale.

Mr Byrne suggested that a Government desire for a permanently lesser paid public Service, which included teachers, was behind the continuation of lower pay scales for teachers and other public sector workers employed since 2010.

Acknowledging the isolation of the ASTI, outside the LRA, Mr Byrne said the union had certainly positioned themselves as outsiders, divorced from the wider trade union movement and fighting on alone. But he said the union was railing against injustices as a matter of principle.

Mr Byrne said members had suffered grievously for their stance but continued because of a genuine interest in education and for the future wellbeing of the profession.

Calling for emergency legislation known as FEMPI to be abolished, Mr Byrne said the legislation was being used to punish any teacher union that refused to comply with agreements.

He called on the public service unions to insist on pay equality in talks on a successor to the Lansdowne Road Agreement.

Mr Byrne was also critical of how the union has been portrayed in the media. He said that this was a concern for members.

"Journalists should report the story", he said, "not take sides, or heaven forbid, make it up".

Unlike the INTO and the TUI, the ASTI is outside the Lansdowne Road Agreement and in dispute with Government on a number of issues.

Its opposition to junior cycle reform is another issue that teachers in Killarney say they are keen to discuss.

Mr Byrne said the union was in favour of reform of the Junior Cert, but the current reforms were ill thought out and not fit for purpose.

He said the ASTI supported the idea of project work being part of the junior cycle, but said it must be externally examined.

Mr Byrne added that the union was prepared to strike again over the issue.

The INTO already has a mandate in place, based on a resolution passed at last year's congress, which instructs the union not to recommend any new deal that does not achieve pay equalisation.

Divisions in ASTI over approach to pay

Deep divisions emerged among delegates at the ASTI convention during the debate on strategy over equal pay. 

One speaker compared the union to North Korea, fighting a war that is long over.

Fintan O'Mahony accused the union of suffering delusions of grandeur in its ongoing campaign outside the LRA. 

Mr Byrne intervened when another speaker continued speaking long after his three-minute time allocation was up.

To calls to 'wind up' from the president and from the floor, the speaker said the union had forgotten about its lower paid teachers.

He said the union's stance had led to a worsening of their conditions. Referring to the other teacher unions who are pursuing pay equality within the LRA, he said it was time to accept that the other way has worked better. 

The union debated a motion calling on the union to vigorously oppose any future national pay agreement that does not guarantee equal pay for equal work, and also end the so-called FEMPI emergency legislation.

Speakers opposing the motion spoke passionately about the plight of lower paid teachers in the union. One said they now had "less than nothing".

He said a continuation of the union's current policy would "inevitably" result in the shattering of the union.

One lower paid teacher supporting the motion spoke of her frustration and disappointment at the lack of progress on the issue. 

Speakers in favour of the motion were also critical of union strategy. Asking a list of question of the leadership, one speaker in favour called the current strategy a "zombie campaign".

But one speaker in favour raised the money owed to Ireland to Apple, contrasting the Government's refusal to accept that money with what she called the "scandal" of low pay for teachers.

Another speaker said he found it embarrassing that other trade unions had abandoned the ASTI.

Despite many very passionate appeals from speakers against the motion, more speakers lined up to speak in favour. 

In the end the motion was comfortably carried.