Scotland: Nursery nurses end 14 week strike

The background to this dispute is rooted in years of under investment in public services and a total disregard by the employers of the vital role nursery nurses provide in early years education.

The magnificent strike by Scotland’s nursery nurses has now ended. The longest all out strike in Scotland since the miners strike of 1984 saw the last group of nursery nurses in Glasgow go back to work after 14 weeks of all out strike. They did not win everything they wanted but important concessions were won through a determined struggle by 4,000 overwhelmingly women workers. Just as important the nursery nurses have provided an inspiration to workers fighting low pay everywhere. In this article Jim McFarlane looks at the lessons of the nursery nurses struggle. And Jill McNaughton a Dundee Nursery nurse explains how the strike changed her.

Nursery nurses end 14 week strike

 The job of a Nursery Nurse has not been evaluated since 1988. Since then a raft of changes to the job have taken place. New responsibilities have been added and a National Curriculum has to be followed. Yet still Nursery Nurses pay was a meagre £10,000 to £13,800 a year.

UNISON brought forward a Pay and Grading Claim in September 2001 and formally lodged it with the employers in October 2001.

The employers COSLA responded that it would need to be discussed at local (individual Council) level during the ’job-evaluation’ exercise UNISON then agreed to lodge an identical claim individually with the 32 councils in Scotland in early 2002. UNISON branches did so at the beginning February 2002.

COSLA continually stalled on progressing the claim and tested the patience of the Nursery Nurses to the limit. In a ballot held at the end of April 2003 nearly 90% voted in favour of strike action. The high majority YES vote was an indication of the strength of feeling and determination.

The first wave of strikes began on 20th May 2003. A few local UNISON branches settled locally with their employers but the vast majority of Nursery Nurses were taking part in the strikes. The imagination, energy and enthusiasm of the Nursery Nurses was an inspiration to all activists.

Learning through struggle

Most Nursery Nurses came into the struggle with little experience of organising things such as picketing and demonstrations but they rapidly developed a flair for noisy, and colourful events to publicise their case.

There has not been such an impressive struggle for many years. The employers had certainly underestimated their determination. They held numerous large demonstrations in a number of towns and cities across Scotland. Local Labour Councillors, MPs and MSPs tried to shift the blame for the impasse onto COSLA, neglecting to mention that COSLA was run and led by those same New Labour Councillors.

The dispute dragged on for months with one, two and three day strikes. The media tried its best to ignore the strike. There did not seem to be a strategy for winning the dispute coming from the Union leaders either. Publicity material was slow in arriving for local branches and basic things such as stickers and posters took an age to materialise, if at all.

The employers were clearly playing a long game of hoping that as the dispute dragged on that disillusionment would sink in with the Nursery Nurses and they would eventually cave in. In February this year the Nursery Nurses were then balloted again on the future of the dispute.

This was no straightforward ballot for all out strike action. Nursery Nurses were faced with 5 options in this ballot, including continuing 1 and 2 day strikes, selective indefinite strike for a small number of Nursery Nurses, suspending the action as well as all out strike involving all Nursery Nurses in the 28 out of 32 branches that hadn’t settled locally at that stage. There was a danger that this type of ballot could have caused confusion and there was a possibility that some kind of demobilisation could have set in.

However because of the momentum of the strike and the links that had been built up between different areas 81% voted to take all out strike action. The first time members in any Trade Union had done so for a number of years. This reflected the increasing militancy and confidence of the Nursery Nurses themselves and also the support they had been able to build up in the different communities. Despite the efforts of some sections of the media, parents especially were overwhelmingly supporting the Nursery Nurses. The parents and carers understood the complexities of their job even if the Scottish Executive and local Councils didn’t.

In preparation for the all out strike action, in some areas, approaches were made to other Trade Unions for solidarity. Financial support was given although unfortunately this was not backed up with active support. Even a one day public sector strike in support of the Nursery Nurses would have meant both COSLA and the Scottish Executive could no longer ignore the dispute.

All out action

The beginning of the all out strike upped the tempo of the struggle to a new level. Fresh layers of activists came to the fore, they were confident in challenging the employers, speaking at meetings, demonstrations and lobbies and crucially in raising ideas within the Union structures on taking the dispute forward. Regular mass meetings were vital not only for keeping members informed but also to maintain the morale and solidarity amongst Nursery Nurses themselves. Street and workplace collections were organised as well as solidarity visits outwith Scotland.

In Dundee, from the suggestion of International Socialists/CWI members within the Union branch a meeting for parents was called and from that a parents Support Group was set up that was then widened to include other Trade Unions and parties. This body played a vital role in organising solidarity for the nursery nurses.

As the action continued there was a real effort made by activists to maintain a profile in the media. A number of different stunts, lobbies and demonstrations were organised. Nursery Nurses in Dundee organised a demo with the theme of the suffragettes, woman still struggling for equality and recognition. Nursery Nurses in Edinburgh and Fife organised a march across the Forth Road Bridge with Nursery Nurses from both sides of the river and their colleagues from other areas meeting in the middle. They made up a whole range of humourous chants and songs to get their message across.

The Scottish Parliament was lobbied and the comments of First Minister Jack McConnell enflamed the mood of the strikers even more when he called the dispute a national disgrace and implied that men at the top of the Trade Union were manipulating the female strikers.

Eventually, 5 weeks into the all out strike COSLA were forced by the action into talks. This was significant, as all along they had said it was up to local councils to reach negotiated deals. Nursery Nurses across Scotland were clear in their fight for a national deal to reflect the same National Curriculum they were all working to.

It is the thin end of the wedge to have Nursery Nurses doing the same job in different areas but having different pay and conditions and could open the doors to many other local authority jobs going down the same road. This is what the employer’s want, so-called flexibility. Never mind that councillors were lobbying the Scottish Executive for a national salary for all councillors of around £25,000 a year, claiming they did the same job! This was the whole point of the Nursery Nurses struggle for decent pay and the blatant hypocrisy of Councillors was not lost on them.

Local deals

At a meeting of the Disputes Committee on 20th April the meeting decided that branches should enter into local negotiations with their local authority using details of settlements and offers received to achieve the best possible local agreement. This in effect abandoned the strategy for a national settlement without consultation with the vast majority of strikers who were outraged at this change in strategy.

A number of rumours were circulating amongst the strikers that the strike pay would be stopped if local offers of a salary of over £15,500 were received. In some cases nursery nurses felt they had no choice but to sign local deals.

Nursery nurses were paid on average £9.11 before the strike started. At least in 12 councils nursery nurses have won wage rates of £10 an hour or more. The strike action has forced the local employers into conceding deals they would not have given without the all out strike.

In Dundee the deal settled on was £1,000 a year more than Council’s first local offer. In a number of areas other concessions were won over working hours, starting/finishing times, holidays etc.

New Labour were shown up in local councils across the country as well as the head in the sand approach of the Scottish Executive. The SNP were once again put to the test and failed miserably. In the Parliament and other councils they voiced their support but in the one Council they control, Angus, they treated the Nursery Nurses with contempt and came forward with one of the worst offers in Scotland.

The Scottish Socialist Party and their elected representatives have won widespread support amongst Nursery Nurses.

Rebuild the unions

One of the clear lessons of the dispute is the need for rebuilding trade union structures by the members themselves. An invigoration of new shop stewards and activists with the experience of those women will give a boost to socialist forces within the branches and at a national level. The networks built by the Nursery Nurses themselves need to be maintained and broadened, this is happening in some areas already. The consciousness of these heroic strikers has been dramatically changed by the struggle itself. Many have commented that they can never go back to how things were before the strike. Management are wary of empowered, well organised, cohesive and still angry workforce.

Many have studied the lessons of the great Miners Strike of 1984/85 and are discussing the ideas of socialism and how to struggle to change society. They are also debating a need for a fighting union leadership at a local and national level. Their struggle has reinvigorated the trade union movement in a number of areas, they were not held back or weighed down by defeats of the past.

The task now is to ensure that th energy of these fighters is directed into the trade unions and into a struggle to change the type of system we live under. From one that values children’s education and those who work in that sector so poorly to that of a socialist society where the needs of the vast majority comes before that of a tiny elite.

The “big men” at the top had better watch out!

“I began my Nursery Nurse career at the tender age of 18. Having been in the job for about two months there was word of a strike to come.

Jill McNaughton, Dundee Nursery nurse

The day it was announced I was frog marched down to the union building by my new colleagues to join the union.

I remember feeling rather proud, suddenly I was old enough to stand up for my rights.

Our strike lasted 1 day. We stood outside the council HQ chanting " low pay no way". It has to be said it was all rather civilised. We were taken into the building in small groups for a warm cup of tea or coffee. At lunch time we went home. Next day we were back at work and very soon we were told we had a pay rise. It was all so easy.

15 years later I was back at another meeting with my friend Loraine.

The first thing I said to her when we got out was " You need to join the union. I think we might have a fight on our hands". Little did I know what was to come!

Several months later we decided to go on strike.

At the time due to my experiences in the 1st strike I really thought when nurseries closed throughout Scotland for 2-3 days the dispute would be resolved quickly. Well as everyone now knows this was not the case.

Some of the lessons we have learned? Well I don’t know anyone who believed we needed so many 1,2 and 3 day strikes before we went to all out action.

We should have asked for more support from other unions. We always believed that the Unison leadership in Scotland would support us through to the end. By this I mean a national deal.

We became much stronger people through the strike. Through bucket collections, solidarity visits, talks and attending rallies.

We discovered that there were lots of people out there who supported our fight. 

And now for how it changed me

 You’ve got no time to watch telly, and you really don’t care. Housework goes out the window. The phone goes constantly. You really see how strong your relationship with your husband/partner is. Sometimes it was not easy. I am however pleased to say as far as I know we all survived. 

Well I have to say I voted Labour all my life. I really did believe that they were the working peoples party (oh how naive I was)

I will admit I thought that socialists were a group of people who were a little mad fighting for things they had no chance of winning.

They do say you learn things the hard way and I know I did. I now know they are not mad but are fighting for the rights of ordinary people.

Finally I strongly believe that the big men in Unison who sailed us down the river and left us with no option but to accept a local deal should be held accountable for there actions!

I’ve volunteered to become a shop steward now alongwith a number of colleagues who were not active in the union before the strike.

Some of the "big men" at the top had better watch out. I hope Nursery nurses can stay strong and united and build a union that respects and listens to its members.

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June 2004