During 2018 and early 2019, UNISON members working in Salford City Council’s five Sure Start nurseries fought a tremendous battle, alongside parents, carers and the wider Salford community, to save the nurseries from closure. Their dedication to protecting not only their own jobs, but vital services for children and families in one of the most deprived cities in the UK convinced local politicians like Labour Mayor Paul Dennett and Salford MPs Rebecca Long-Bailey and Barbara Keeley to stand up to Government and demand more funding. The campaign was successful and the nurseries were retained.
Throughout the pandemic, those same workers have ensured those nurseries have remained open to support vulnerable children, the children of key workers and, at times, other children when transmission rates have fallen.
Over the Christmas period the workers could see the number of cases increasing and they supported UNISON’s call for the government to close all educational and childcare settings, except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers. Yet, they were left extremely angry when, under pressure from the unions, Johnson bowed to such a demand in schools, but not in early years.
Following workplace consultations undertaken by our five reps (one in each nursery) Salford City UNISON immediately mobilised support for the Council to take the decision to restrict openings in line with schools. We were met with resistance from some within the council. Initially, their argument was that the government line was correct – the nurseries were safe. This wouldn’t wash! So they changed approach and said that to take such a step could see children leaving and not coming back, thus potentially threatening the nurseries’ future. Our members understood this risk but they know the strength of feeling that exists to fight again for the nurseries if it ever becomes necessary. They knew their demand was not just for them, but for the safety of children and families.
The union held a full meeting of members on Thursday 7th January and over 30 said that if the Council did not switch to a policy of ‘key worker and vulnerable children only’ by the following week, they would hand in section 44 letters en masse and refuse to continue to attend unsafe workplaces. Representatives met with the council the following day and on the back on this stance, secured an agreement that the nurseries would restrict opening and giving parents a reasonable period of notice and time to ensure that families who still needed provision would receive it.
A joint statement was agreed by UNISON and the Council, which not only explained the decision, but also called upon the Government to take the same approach for all early years’ settings. Other UNISON branches and unions have contacted us asking advice on how we achieved this step and we’re happy to give advice and solidarity wherever we can.
Early years support is vital and we will always fight for it, but the workers who have made it their calling deserve safety, as do the families of the children they support. We can’t wait to fully re-open our nurseries, but in the meantime we will continue to support members to take similar action in other settings and continue to do what we can to force this cruel government to put the welfare of the people first.