THOUSANDS OF nursery nurses across Scotland struck on Wednesday of last week and Tuesday of this in their long-running campaign to get recognition for the job they do. 'We don't want to have to be on strike,' said Margaret Ritchie on the picket line outside Royal Mile primary school in Edinburgh.
'But we've been left with no choice but to stand up for ourselves.' As she spoke parents who were dropping off children offered support for the low-paid workers.
'Most parents have been really great and are on our side, despite what the press says,' said Carolann Withington. 'This has been going on for months. But the blame for that lies with the local authority employers, COSLA, who are refusing to come to a national agreement.'
That's why the Unison union is now balloting for an all-out, indefinite strike due to begin on 1 March. One look at the nursery nurses' pay packet tells you why they are prepared to consider such action.
After two years training at college they start on just £10,800. The top of their pay grade is a paltry £13,500. Working in very demanding special needs education brings that up to only £14,300. They have not been regraded for 16 years.
On top of that the media and the education authorities in Scotland have been quite prepared to give the impression that these vital workers merely spend their time entertaining children. 'They think we are little better than nose-wipers,' says Kareen Casey.
'In fact we assess children, deliver education, work with the classroom teacher, intervene with children who need help and play a crucial role in the whole school. ' Margaret Ritchie says, 'There is less opportunity for training now than ten years ago. There is less acknowledgement of what we do, even though we are doing more.'
'There's a move towards replacing us with learning assistants, who don't get the training we do, are paid less and face being employed as term time only workers.'
Alan Melville, a nursery nurse from Royal High primary, came to visit the picket line. 'Most people don't believe I'm a nursery nurse,' he says, 'because it is an overwhelmingly female workforce. The low pay also means a massive gender gap, and that's a scandal in itself. I love this job, but won't be able to afford to do it soon. We should be getting more solidarity not just from individual teachers, who've often been great, but from the EIS teachers' union. It's certainly a big step going for all-out action. The union's got to do something dramatic. And if we take our case to other groups of workers I think they will back us financially, morally and in other ways.'
That is certainly what happened in Tower Hamlets, east London, last summer. Nursery nurses there went on indefinite strike and won after three weeks. Their lobbies and pickets deeply embarrassed the local council. They also served as rallying points for wider solidarity. 'We are determined to win this dispute,' says John Stevenson, secretary of Edinburgh Unison branch. 'For years the employers said there could be no local regrading and it had to happen nationally. Now they say there can be no national settlement.'
As the nursery nurses' action escalates other trade unionists are also stepping up the solidarity. Mass collections and sending delegations of strikers out to build support will become decisive if the nursery nurses decide to follow what happened in Tower Hamlets and go all out to win quickly.
STRIKERS HELD a buoyant and confident 400-strong rally in Glasgow city centre on Tuesday. They linked arms round the City Chambers, where councillors were meeting. We took down collections for the strike fund. FBU union members at a day school gave £330. Now we're organising solidarity for the next action.