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Kirklees Nursery nurses: United Action Gave Us Confidence
KIRKLEES NURSERY nurses recently won a regrading battle through strike action. Like their fellow workmates in Tower Hamlets, this victory was only achieved by a hard-hitting and united combination of strikes, in Kirklees' case of nine-day duration.
The socialist exclusively interviewed two of the Unison stewards who led the strike, SUE SUNTER and JILL HINCHLIFFE.
This dispute took three years to settle, why do you think the council was so long in meeting your pay claim?
"Because we are a minority female workforce in a caring role. They thought we wouldn't take action, that the guilt factor would stop us taking it any further.
They tried to turn the public against us by saying we were denying children an education. We conducted ourselves properly and were patient. We always listened to them, we were disciplined but we kept on waiting."
The dispute was in two stages, what were they and how did it progress?
"The first stage was to get them to reach a local deal with us. We're governed by national pay scales, but they have never been updated. They initially refused to talk with us.
So we raised our local profile. We collected signatures, went to the press, made a lot of phone calls to councillors. We got the public on our side who have been very supportive.
We got all the Nursery Nurses on side and united. Communication was very difficult, being spread over 90 schools.
The council had stopped the termly meetings with the staff group. So we spread the word through UNISON and set up a Working Party to motivate and lead the dispute. We then got everyone on board.
It took a long time for us to feel we could trust the union. We'd been involved before in trying to get a better deal and got nowhere.
This time we got Nursery Nurses together and gave regular feedback. One of the big motivators was that the council had already regraded other support staff and we had been left behind.
It was hard to keep going. Sometimes it felt like we took one step forward and three back. But we kept together and reminded ourselves where we were going. The working party acted as a bridge between the union and all the members."
In the end, they agreed to local talks, but things were still stalled, why was that?
"They tried to impose term-time contracts. That had to be stopped. We lobbied the council, altogether about four times.
"The Director of Education tried to pull Nursery Nurses away from the union by organising two meetings with us but without the union.
He soon understood the strength of feeling though. At the second meeting we invited the union along, and he was clearly frightened of the mood.
We invited the deputy leader of the council to one of our meetings and he got the message as well. We worked to rule because of their threats and delays.
In the end they agreed to keep our 52-week contracts. We then set about writing our own job descriptions for consideration by the council."
They finally made an offer in October last year, what happened?
"It was totally unacceptable. After all the work we'd done, they refused to use the local grading system and offered us less than 20p per hour.
"The mood was very angry and frustrated. They were still not listening. We rejected the offer and told the union to get shifting on strike action.
They made a second offer which took us up by only 38p an hour. They forgot we hadn't had a pay rise for 10 years and in that time the job had changed so much.
With all that extra responsibility, it felt like a smack in the face. Some Nursery Nurses have even had to take two jobs to make ends meet."
So there was a ballot for strike action, how did that go?
"80% voted for strike action. It gave us renewed strength at our mass meeting. The mood became determined, enough was enough.
"Our strength came though and our anger was directed at the right people, the council. We had massive support from parents, support staff and even head teachers."
How did the strike go?
"At first we were a bit frightened. But we came together and felt a great sense of achievement. There was a lot of support on picket lines.
"On the first day's strike, we came together at a rally and felt we could do anything. Our self-belief came though and it gave us a sense of power.
We moved to a three-day strike, which was really uplifting. We organised daily activities and had a lot of publicity and interest.
We had a brilliant day when 100 of us lobbied the full council. We felt we had support from a lot of councillors and even from members of the ruling party.
The deputy leader of the council was totally embarrassed in the full meeting after we'd addressed them. It represented a real turning point for the strike. He disappeared from public view after that."
What about your five day strike?
"Striking is hard work and it took powerful words to get everyone motivated. We got organised and planned ahead.
"We broke down into local groups and planned out daily picketing. We also visited other workplaces to spread the word around the whole area.
We had a march through town which was inspirational. Although a few had slipped back into work, confidence grew as the week went on. The solid core at the centre of the strike kept us going, we became impermeable.
We kept everyone informed and stayed in touch. We continued lobbying all the political parties and made a big impact. The council were forced back to the talks."
What about the new offer?
"We've kept our 52-week contracts and that is very important for us. We would like to have achieved more, but it has been a positive result.
"We wouldn't have moved them any further without all-out strike action. We weren't sure that everyone would have gone for that.
We'd had great support from parents but we had also seen the hurt it did to the children. We have pushed the council further than they wanted to go by sticking together and saying no.
We stood up for ourselves. They said they didn't have the money and we said that was unacceptable. We were empowering our members and they got scared."
What have you learned from the dispute?
"This was a longer road than we thought. People got stronger as went on. We became a lot more confident.
Schools will have to be more careful and treat us more fairly. I have learnt to speak out for myself. I used to stay quiet but I am no longer JUST a Nursery Nurse.
We will hold regular Nursery Nurse meetings to keep everyone together and to get advice. The government wants education on the cheap and we will have to be vigilant.
We want to be an inspiration to others and help them get organised. We wish all other Nursery Nurses involved in strike action good luck and wish to thank all the other branches and Unison members for their support. Striking is hard but it's eventually worth it
We also want to thank the union for all its support; we wouldn't have set out on our journey otherwise.
Mike and Julie (Unison Education Stewards and Socialist Party members) have been a great help and their continued support was important. Our victory would not have been possible otherwise."
In The Socialist 19 July 2003:
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