By Tom Barker, Leicester Socialist Alternative and UNISON rep at Ash Field Academy (personal capacity)
After more than 40 days of industrial action, education support workers at Ash Field Academy have emerged victorious in our fight for fair pay.
The dispute began after we discovered evidence that our employer, Ash Field Academy Trust, had been paying many of us significantly less than equivalent staff in other special needs schools. After around 6 months of negotiations, our employer was still proposing to pay us less than other settings. We were therefore forced to undertake an industrial action ballot, which we won with a crushing majority. The dispute ended up going on for so long that we needed to conduct a second industrial action ballot in September, which again returned an extremely decisive vote for strikes on an increased turnout.
Now, after 43 days of strikes, we have won the dispute. UNISON members have voted overwhelmingly to accept a new, significantly improved pay deal, which will be backdated to September 2022. The settlement includes the introduction of new pay scales and pay progression, which – alongside the nationally-agreed 2022/23 salary increase of £1,925 pro-rata – brings support staff pay into line with Local Authority-maintained SEND schools. In addition, staff have secured a one-off payment of £2,000 to all support staff, and a contractual agreement to comply with all future nationally-agreed pay awards for school support staff.
Above inflation pay increases
We estimate that, excluding the £2,000 one off payment, the deal increases pay for classroom-based support staff (the lowest-paid employees involved in the dispute, who were most affected by the initial pay gap) by between 18 and 25 per cent.
This is a massive victory for all support staff at the school and the wider workers’ movement. But like all investment in public services, it is not just the workers who will reap the benefits. Our actions will help to rectify the recruitment and retention issues our school has faced and ultimately benefit us, our students and their families.
The breakthrough in negotiations came when members gave notice of our intent to take all out strike action for the duration of November. The industrial action strategy we had pursued had always anticipated this action, but it was necessary to exhaust other options before taking this step. Once we embarked on an all out strike, members continued to stand firm against immense pressure. This stand proved to be decisive and our employer reached out with a significantly improved offer.
It is essential that we now draw out all the important lessons from this dispute so that they be taken into the wider labour movement. At a time when the majority of workers across the country, even those in dispute, are facing deteriorating pay and conditions, we have managed to secure serious improvements in pay and conditions. Of course, part of this reflects just how badly staff at the school were paid previously, but our campaign is full of valuable lessons for how to get as much out of a dispute as possible.
Lessons from the dispute
My colleagues at Ash Field are overwhelmingly women and from diverse backgrounds, mostly Black and Asian. We do work that, under capitalism, is typically seen as ‘women’s work’, i.e. care and education. The dispute was eagerly taken up by those in the workplace who saw it as an opportunity to push back against the years of exploitation and underappreciation they have faced doing what is typically called unskilled work, which in reality requires extremely high levels of skill but is just grossly undervalued. But while many members are willing to fight to improve their situation, they also needed to be provided with the union organisation and leadership to achieve this.
At an early stage of the dispute, we set up a strike committee of 12-15 members (out of a total membership of around 110). The strike committee, which met frequently throughout the dispute, took decisions about the timetable for action, the content of communications to the press, to parents and other members, and many other key strategic decisions. It helped spread information and challenge misinformation; it helped lift members up when things were getting tough. We didn’t get everything right all the time, but when we made mistakes, we learned the lessons together. This dispute was owned and run by the membership. This was necessary because, at times, the committee also needed to defend the dispute against disruption from the trade union bureaucracy.
At every stage, we have sought to politicise this dispute, demanding that local councillors and politicians intervene to ask our employer to settle. With a few notable exceptions, the response we got was pitiful. We nevertheless pressed on with pressuring our employer as much as possible. A solidarity campaign encouraged trade unionists and socialists across Britain and further afield to write to the school, as well as local politicians, to demand that they settle in our favour. This played a central role in steadying the resolve of members and keeping the pressure on. Lots of trade unionists, both local and national, attended our picket lines to show support. This helped break us out of the isolation of a single workplace. We knew we had widespread support across the trade union movement.
We had planned a protest in mid-November, which UNISON’s entire presidential team had agreed to attend and the left in the union was preparing to mobilise for. This could have had a decisive impact if the strikes had needed to continue. We were also in discussions with striking NHS workers in Leicester about a joint rally in the city centre.
However, after we issued notice of all out strikes for the entirety of November, we made the breakthrough we needed, and our employer approached us with a significantly improved offer. This was the fourth offer that our employer had tabled – showing that further improvements can be won if members can hold their nerve.
The victory of support workers at Ash Field Academy should be a green light to all education support workers, in particular those in academies, to organise the fight for improvements in pay and equality. It also has clear implications for the possibility of struggle in the care sector nationally. Although woefully unorganised, the care sector, which is rife with abusive employers, is a potential tinderbox.
We know from the huge strike wave which has developed over the last year that working class people are willing to engage in sustained struggle to improve their situation. However, this appetite for struggle needs to be linked to a bold fighting approach with a clear strategy for victory, which in turn requires decisive leadership and the democratic inclusion of the wider union membership.
Quotes from members:
UNISON member and Teaching Assistant, Prabha Ramakrishnan, who is also a parent of a child who attends the school, said:
“This victory was achieved only due to the majority of the support staff fighting together for their rights to fair pay supported by parents and pupils.”
Another UNISON member who wished to remain anonymous, said:
“This is a win not just for our members but the support staff across the board. Workers showed tremendous resolve and professionalism amidst prejudicial pressures to return to work but we stood firm.”
A further Ash Field worker who also wished to remain anonymous said:
“We won this dispute by sticking together, supporting each other and standing up for what we knew was right.”