‘WE FOUGHT for our principles and we’re overjoyed!’ Isabel and Sophia were celebrating on Friday of last week in Tower Hamlets, east London. They and over 100 other nursery workers had just heard of their stunning victory – one that should be a model and a lesson for every trade unionist. Three weeks of all-out indefinite strike had humbled the New Labour council and forced it to retreat on all the key issues at the centre of the fight.
‘It should have a domino effect. We’ve set a precedent,’ said Sophia and Isabel. ‘It should be an example for others. It should be publicised everywhere.’ The council wanted to change the nursery workers’ contracts from all year round to term time only.
The move was seen as a deep insult by the workers, who felt their important work was not being valued. The council has now completely dropped the demand. The workers will also see their pay rise by up to £4,459 compared to what they get now, from a maximum of £16,400 to a top rate of £20,859 a year. Much of the rise had been promised under regrading, which the council had tied to the term time only contracts.
But the final deal will mean most nursery workers will get significantly more than the council was offering before the strike. There are still some details to be resolved, but the nursery workers went back to work on Monday having won a smashing victory. The spirit and determination of the strikers won that victory. Instead of one-day stoppages, the workers went for all-out indefinite action from the start, striking until they won.
As Marian from Culloden school nursery put it, ‘One-day strikes don’t have enough impact. This all-out action is much more effective.’ ‘To win we need to cause a rattle,’ argued Shaheda from Manorfields nursery – and they did just that!
The workers organised and ran the strike themselves, and did it with real imagination and energy. They had pickets at the dozens of nurseries involved and set up their own strike committee.
They held regular mass meetings, lobbied head teachers’ meetings, and protested at the town hall and council meetings. They went out to win solidarity, including from parents. Many joined their pickets and protests. They were backed to the hilt by their local Unison union branch too, and won support from other trade unionists in the borough. The strike was a model in other ways too.
The mainly young, and overwhelmingly women workers reflected the multiracial mix of the area. The picket lines and protests saw white, Bengali and Somali united as workers in their common struggle. The strikers’ leaflets addressed to parents were multilingual too. The strike will have other long term results.
‘We’re much more united now we know each other,’ says Joanne from the Alice Model nursery. ‘We didn’t use to know the nursery up the road. And we’re going to keep united.’
The most important lesson of all was that spelled out by Jayne, another nursery nurse: ‘It’s important that the little people stand up for what they believe in. We’ve all stuck together and united to make a stand. Singly the little people don’t have a voice, but as a mass we can make them listen.’
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