Northern Ireland: 2,000 classroom assistants’ hold one-day strike

Solid action against pay cut and attacks on working conditions

Demonstration by striking school classroom assistants, Belfast, 26 September 2007

The new Northern Ireland Assembly Minister for Education, Caitríona Ruane (Sinn Fein), endorsed a new ‘offer’, in June, which reduces primary school classroom assistants’ pay by up to 18% through lengthening their working week, from 32.5 hours to 36 hours, and by removing the Special Needs Allowance. Classroom assistants endured nearly 13 years of attacks on their pay and conditions, due to the Education and Library Boards’ deliberate use of ‘job evaluation’ to keep wages down. All the major political parties in Northern Ireland sit on the boards, and are responsible for carrying out these attacks. Now the Assembly [local ‘power-sharing’ government] is up and running, they continue their policy of attacking workers’ pay and conditions. This forced classroom assistants who are members of the largest public sector union, NIPSA, to vote 93% in favour of taking strike action, leading to an all-out strike.

Classroom assistants enjoyed huge support from parents, who are furious that workers who play a role in the development of special-need children have been treated this way for 13 years. On 26 September, over 1,000 striking classroom assistants marched through Belfast city centre, demanding payment for 13 years of unpaid pay increases, and an end to attacks on their working conditions.

The strike seriously rocked the Assembly. Minister Caitríona Ruane displayed schizophrenic tendencies, by claiming she sympathises with the classroom assistants and demanding the boards and the unions get together and resolve the dispute, while, at the same time, the minister told the boards ‘nothing extra’ could be offered to the strikers, without her permission!

The solid strike forced the minister to make a pathetic offer, which would see classroom assistants receive a one-off average payment of £2,000, on condition that they accept a longer working week and the removal of the Special Needs Allowance. This would mean that whatever one-off payment is made would be wiped out after 12 months, leaving classroom assistants with worse pay and conditions than before.

All-out action

Since the strike ballot, NIPSA recruited 900 extra classroom assistants, a 37.5% increase. The fighting determination of NIPSA members stands in marked contrast to the role of the leadership of the other unions representing the minority of classroom assistants. UNISON accepted the deal from Minister Ruane, in June. But when NIPSA rejected the deal, and voted for strike action, UNISON suddenly opposed the deal! The GMB and T&GWU unions, who represent 150 and 20 classroom assistants, respectively, joined UNISON’s call for NIPSA to call off the strike, claiming they intended to ballot for ‘all-out strike action’, in November. Eamonn Coy, a GMB official, enflamed the anger of classroom assistants by publicly attacking the NIPSA strike action on radio.

It is most likely the latest offer from the Assembly Executive will be rejected. A three-day strike will take place on 2, 3, 4 October. If a resolution is not reached, all-out strike action will commence from 8 October. With the Northern Ireland Assembly about to begin to impose its neo-liberal ‘Programme for Government’, this strike, of mostly underpaid women workers from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds, is extremely important. What it also points to is the need for an independent, working class, socialist party, which can politically represent the interests of workers in the North.

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