'THIS IS a battle for justice. We are demanding that we get proper treatment and are set free from low pay.' So said Janet from Greengables nursery, who was one of the 1,000 striking nursery nurses protesting in Edinburgh on Thursday of last week.
Chanting, singing and waving banners they marched to the headquarters of the Scottish local authorities to press their claim for a £4,000 increase and improvements in conditions. 'They never thought we'd strike because we're women who look after children,' says a Unison union member from Kings Park nursery in Dalkeith, Midlothian. 'I love looking after the children and I love my job but it's degrading that we are paid so little and it shows that the people at the top of the system regard childcare as a very low priority.'
It was the fourth day on strike for 1,000 workers in Edinburgh, Lothians and the Borders. Across Scotland around 5,000 nursery nurses are involved in the action. This is an important battle that exposes all the empty rhetoric from the Scottish executive and New Labour councils about the importance of children and 'social inclusion'.
On the one side is the energy and determination of the strikers. On the other is New Labour's insistence that they will not even consider a change in nursery nurses' pay structure until 2004. The workers have all struck together across Scotland for two days and are now striking area by area. Their pay is disgracefully low.
A worker from the Gilmerton child and family centre told Socialist Worker, 'I read about directors of companies who think that £250,000 is a very basic salary for 12 months ordering people about. 'I've got less than that for over 20 years of looking after children – which is a worthwhile job for society. Ever since I was 18 I've voted Labour but I didn't in the last elections. Blair has plenty of money for a horrible and unnecessary war in Iraq but nothing for people like us who provide a vital service.'
The workers are angry that they have had more and more responsibilities shifted onto them but they are not paid any extra. 'We don't just change nappies, we change lives,' says Alice from the Westfield Court nursery school. 'The job has changed completely in the last few years and is now much more like being a teacher. We work alongside teachers in the class. If there are 20 children there will be one teacher and one nursery nurse doing essentially the same job. But the teacher will be paid twice as much. Good luck to the teachers for what they get but we should be paid much more like them than we are now.'
Kath Tyszko from the Walkerburn nursery near Peebles says, 'People think that we just play with children, but we are much more than carers. We are educating children in a professional manner and we expect to get pay that reflects the work we do. It's quality childcare and preparation for the future.'
The last review of nursery nurses' jobs took place as long ago as 1988. Two years ago the employers said pay would have to be dealt with individually in each of the 32 local councils. When pay claims went in the authorities set up a joint Scottish working party – but then the issue was handed back to a local level.
Shona Wallace, from one of Edinburgh's nurseries, says, 'The strike is really solid and you can see people changed by what we have done. We all feel very confident and more sure that we are right with every day that passes. Parents have also been very supportive, even though our strikes are inconvenient for them. People are amazed that we get paid so little and know that if we win it will be a sign that childcare is taken seriously.'
The union's campaign for better pay has been going on for over two years. It culminated in a 90 percent ballot vote for strikes after the local authorities refused to listen. On Tuesday of this week around 1,500 nursery nurses in Inverclyde, Ayrshire, Orkney and Shetland started a two-day strike. The union plans further action both regionally and across Scotland.
The only major party which backs the nursery nurses' full claim is the Scottish Socialist Party.
£200 is the amount per week, before stoppages, a nursery nurse starts on, after two years at college
£280 is the maximum a nursery nurse can earn in a week, even after 20 years service
For the latest on the strike see www.unison-scotland.org.uk
Send messages of support to Carol Ball c/o Unison Glasgow City Branch, 4th Floor, 18 Albion Street, Glasgow G1 1LH, phone 0141 552 7069, or Joe Di Paola, Unison, 60 Bedford Road, Edinburgh, EH4 3UQ, phone 0870 7777 006.