frontline 14

The Scottish Nursery Nurses’ Strike

nursery nurses lobby COSLA

Gregor Gall, from Leith SSP and Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Stirling looks at the recent struggle of Scotland’s nursery nurses.

Judged by the numbers involved, the length of the action and the political ramifications, the nursery nurses’ strike has been the most important industrial dispute in Scotland for the last two decades. This means since the miners’ strike of 1984-1985, it has been a more significant event for the labour movement and socialists than the 107-day Caterpillar occupation (1987), the six-month Timex strike (1993) and nine-week Glacier occupation (1996). This then warrants an analysis of the strike’s origin, nature and outcome as well as its implications in terms of not just the nursery nurses themselves, but also with regard to the wider labour movement.

The Origins of the Dispute

Although the nursery nurses’ claim for a review of their salaries dated back their last review in 1988, their campaign that led to the indefinite strike of 2004 began in May 2001. The claim arose as a result of the job specifications of nursery nurses becoming enlarged with additional responsibilities but without a consequent rise in salaries. By 2003, the salaries of the nursery nurses in council-run nurseries, and set by COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities), had stagnated, ranging between £10k-£14k per annum. A head of discontent built up, leading to the demand for a review by COSLA with a claim for uplift to between £14k-£18k.

At first, the campaign comprised of the usual fare of rallies and press releases as a precursor to what the nursery nurses hoped would be productive negotiations between their union, Unison, and COSLA, leading to a review. But in response, COSLA advised that it was the responsibility of individual councils to carry out reviews. Unison then presented such a demand individually to the 32 councils, whereupon they responded that this was COSLA’s charge. Frustrated by the lack of progress, the nursery nurses balloted for strike action, leading to series of rolling region-by-region strikes throughout Scotland using discontinuous action such as one- or two- day strikes and accompanied by rallies and demonstrations prior to Christmas 2003.

Again frustrated by any tangible evidence of progress in the dispute in early 2004, the nursery nurses voted by 81% on 68% turnout for all-out, indefinite strike action. Unison agreed to pay the strikers £15 per day, indicating its degree of support for the action.

Upping the Ante and then Winding Down

Consequently, from 1 March this year, some 4,000-5,000 Unison nursery nurse members in Scotland engaged in an all-out, indefinite strike for a national settlement that significantly raised their pay. By the end of March, a small number of Unison local nursery nurses branches had settled with their local authorities, these being some of the smaller authorities outside the Central Belt.

The resolve of the vast majority of strikers was to continue striking until they secured their objective. By the end of the seventh week, twelve councils had come to local agreements but the majority of nursery nurses were still on strike, these being in the local authorities such as Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, the Lothians and Renfrewshire.

However, in the eighth week of the strike, the demand for a national settlement was dropped by Unison following a delegates’ meeting of strikers. Advised by Unison full-time officials, delegates agreed to continue striking but seek local agreements with their employers. Following this dramatic turn, the number of local agreements rose steadily. By the end of May, Edinburgh voted to return to work, followed by Renfrewshire and, finally, Glasgow in early June. The process by which returns to work were effected were by weekly mass meetings with open votes.

Beaten but not Broken?

Assessing the substantive outcome of the strike must begin with the settlements gained and the outlay in terms of costs to the strikers. Clearly, the principle of equal pay for equal work has been breached with varying local settlements. In terms of salaries, the settlements have ranged from £9.83 per hour to £10.46 per hour with around half of local authorities at £10.13. However, Glasgow and Edinburgh branches, with around 2,000 of the nursery nurses, settled at the lowest level of £9.83.

In addition, many settlements included lump sum payments of around £2,500, equating to a large portion of the individual striker’s lost wages. In terms of the objective of gaining a salary range of £14k-£18k, broadly speaking the strikers got as far as £14k-£16k. What is less clear is the variation across the settlements with regard to working hours, holidays and additional responsibilities. Finally, a pledge has been made of a national review of pay and conditions at some point in the near future. Without entering into special pleading, the anger and determination of the nursery nurses suggest they will press a hard claim in such a review. On this evidence, the settlement was neither a defeat nor a victory but some sort of reasonable compromise.

However, this is only one side to the equation. The majority of strikers were on strike for at least ten weeks, with about 40% on strike for nearly 14 weeks. This represents a considerable financial and emotional outlay, notwithstanding the £15 strike pay per day paid by Unison and large sums of money collected for the strikers along with some donations by Unison and non-Unison union branches throughout Britain. For the first eight weeks, there was no movement from COSLA and many settlements were both first and final offers from local authorities. In the case of Glasgow, with 1100 nursery nurses, the strikers were forced back by threats of dismissal and alternative provision. This part of the equation considerably lowers the value of what was achieved.

Could it have been Otherwise?

Large, all-out and indefinite strikes are a rarity today and strike action of any form is not particularly common. In 2003, there were just 133 strikes involving 151,000 workers and accounting for 499,000 days not worked. In this context, the resilience of any group of workers on strike for such a length of time is a testament to their collective resolve and combative nature. Arguably, the significance of this is increased by the strikers being women, and low paid workers. The media coverage and attention were also relatively poor. That said to have struck for so long, in such numbers and in an indefinite manner begs the questions, ‘Why did they not win more?’ and ‘Why did they not win sooner?’

A useful way to answer these questions is to recall some other recent instances of strike action by similar groups of predominantly women public sector workers in Scotland in recent years. First, 300 medical secretaries in north Glasgow took 20 days of strike action over several months in a protracted dispute in 2001, winning their regrading claim to increase their salaries from £10k-£12k. This sparked similar actions and disputes in Edinburgh, Sunderland, Newcastle and Northumbria over the next year.

Second, several thousand catering, cleaning, portering and security workers in hospitals disputes in north Glasgow, Greenock and Paisley took strike action in separate actions in 2001 and 2002. The north Glasgow hospital workers took eight days’ action, while those in Inverclyde took nine days’. These actions won improvements that increased pay and conditions, often bringing those of the private contractors up to those of the NHS, and ending the ‘two-tier’ workforce. Such action helped sparked similar and successful strikes in London and Scunthorpe. Third, north Glasgow clerical and administrative workers in 2002 took three week’s strike action for a regrading claim, leading to a review of their case. This brief review suggests that these strikes achieved better outcomes for fewer outlays. How can this be explained?

Broadly speaking, workers in dispute have four resources; their labour scarcity, their disruptive capacity, the scarcity of the product/service they provide and their political influence. In the strike, the nursery nurses had nothing to fear from being replaced by substitute workers (save in Glasgow and towards the end). However, their weaknesses lay in the other areas. Most Unison nursery nurse members and most nursery nurses were on strike, but this did not create sufficient pressure on extremely belligerent employers, for some nurseries stayed open and parents made alternative arrangements. Put another way, if the employers had been less belligerent, then that level of pressure may have been sufficient to win.

But that was not the case and two significant manifestations arose here. First, with picketing relatively sparse and the strike relatively passive for the 4,000-5,000 workers involved, the prospect of closing down the working nurseries was limited. In this sense, a killer blow could not be struck. Second, in parents making coping arrangements, they were not exerting pressure on COSLA/the Scottish Executive because they found means of substitute care through individual and private arrangements like family networks and private nurseries. Therefore, the disruptive capacity and the service scarcity were far from total. Consequently, the impact of the strike was less than might have been expected.

By contrast, in the strikes other than the Glasgow clerical and administrative workers, the workers were able to make a quicker and more disruptive dramatic impact by virtue of their more strategic position, more active picketing and having to target fewer but larger workplaces. Although the nursery nurses were on a very step learning curve, there is little getting away from the conclusion that a more active and robust strike involving more of the strikers was needed. A more active strike would also have accessed the money available from workplace and public collections in order to sustain the strikers at a more comfortable level of existence.

Politically, the nursery nurses were in a weak position on several counts. First, while there was little direct antipathy from parents, moulding together the disparate parents into a single body that could put pressure on COSLA/the Scottish Executive was a difficult task, which was not really attempted. Second, other than the SSP as an active force inside and outside the Scottish Parliament, and the SNP and odd Labour MSP in Parliament, no other support was forthcoming to counter-act Labour. The STUC remained strangely silent for reasons that can only be speculated on at the moment. This would seem to concern Unison’s major role within the STUC and its relationship to Labour in regard of equal pay claims and in the run-up to an election.

Consequently, the most obvious route to create political pressure was a groundswell through the media and in communities and workplaces. On the one hand, the strikers needed to orchestrate events to keep the strike in the news, while on the other, inundate councillors, MSPs, MPs and MEPs with letters, protests and so on so they became a nuisance and irritant. This may have made the First Minister’s comment of the dispute being a ‘national disgrace’ a running sore that compelled him to force COSLA to settle.

The normal contention of the left in explaining poor strike outcomes is that the union leadership let the strikers down. It ‘betrayed them’ and ‘sold them out’. As a point of propaganda or agitation, in this case this is maybe fair enough. But as a form of analysis, it is not. Whilst Unison at Scottish and British levels could have supported their members more fully by organising demonstrations of all the one million Unison members and by collecting money from them, it is an overly substitutionist mentality that suggests the Unison leaderships were the ‘key’ to winning the strike’s demands. In hindsight, and if there was one single thing that the leadership could have done to have compelled the strikers to do, it would have been to step up the picketing and create effective picketing that turned away strike breakers.

What about organising a one-day strike of all Unison members across Scotland? The greatest challenge to mobilising solidarity strikes is not their unlawfulness and the consequent unwillingness of national unions to organise them. Rather, it is making them a possibility at the grassroots level through creating meaningful inter-workplace links. Solidarity strikes have been almost non-existent in the last ten years. Of course, the call by a national union on its members to do so would be helpful but it would not deliver such action where the grassroots organisation is not present.

Difficult Choices

Clearly, a contentious event in the strike was the ending of the national claim on April 20. Every long, drawn out strike faces the following type of questions; should the strikers cut their losses and go back to work? Do they face being ‘starved’ back to work? Or would staying out bring further pressure to bear and lead to a successful outcome? Had the nursery nurses’ strike reached any of these crunch points? Certainly, many strikers were becoming tired and facing financial hardship. This accounted for the movement to sign local deals in some regions. At the same time, the majority in the other councils displayed resilient determination. This clearly presented Unison with a severe difficulty. How could it achieve a national claim when a significant proportion of strikers and councils had settled and COSLA would not budge?

Ending the national claim fragmented the unity and undermined the morale of the nursery nurses to a limited extent. But that was not what was ultimately critical in explaining the final settlements and the process of getting to them. When the strike moved to the stage of being concerned with individual councils, it mattered little to one Unison branch if another settled next to it. The council nurseries were not mobile and parents would not envisage crossing council boundaries to obtain nursery care. Therefore, the battle was still between council and Unison branches. The greater danger of fragmentation and demoralisation lay within branches at this point.

Political Ramifications

What has been the experience of concerted collective struggle on the strikers’ consciousness and self-organisation? Have qualitative advances in consciousness been made such that the activist base has grown, union attachment and members’ participation increased, and lessons learnt over the utility of picketing? Has the strikers’ wider political consciousness experienced a leftward move? Whilst it is too early to yet answer some of these questions, there is some evidence already at hand that can help assess the situation.

Because the strike was marked by large numbers throughout Scotland mobilising against a Labour dominated-COSLA and Scottish Executive, there have been marked political repercussions. In the context of a process of the beginnings of widespread disillusionment with Labour already underway, an unquantifiable number of nursery nurses have drawn certain political conclusions. These comprise not voting Labour again or for the foreseeable future in a series of elections (local, Holyrood, Westminster, European) as well as also considering voting for other parties in these elections, primarily the SSP as a result of its support and solidarity in the dispute. This is because they have become so antagonistic to Labour politicians through the dispute that this colours their whole outlook and/or they have deduced that Labour is not a ‘workers’’ or ‘people’s’ party. This may or may not have been the missing part of the jigsaw in concluding that Labour is a pro-business, pro-capitalist party over PFI, privatisation, public spending, foreign policy and so on.

However, sizeable this milieu is, it is much larger than those that will have concluded that they should become politically active against Labour by, for example, joining the SSP or, in effect, becoming part of the periphery of the SSP. Moreover, the heterogeneous and uneven nature of this process means there are a number of permutations. For example, some will not vote Labour and vote for the SSP but only in local elections. Others may vote Liberal Democrat or SNP in all elections save Westminster ones where they continue to vote Labour, albeit without much enthusiasm.

On the one hand, this overall process reflects the growing decomposition of Labour and the re-emergence of a credible socialist party in Scotland. On the other hand, the apparent complexity reflects the sobering reality that only mass strikes in periods of social turmoil of the type Rosa Luxemburg studied have any significant capacity to change workers’ (whole) worldview in a short period of time and towards socialist ideas. This discussion shows the contingent and indeterminant nature of the processes by which workers’ consciousness changes and develops.

By contrast, in the cases of the medical secretaries’ and hospital workers’ strikes, a combination of factors meant that little positive political effect was forthcoming. The strikes were relatively short, localised and involved smaller numbers. The employers were the nominally apolitical NHS trusts and the issues in the strike did not give rise to serious or widespread calls for government intervention. In this situation and the context of the state of political disillusionment with Labour in 2001/2002, such searching political questions were unlikely to have been raised in strikers’ minds. On top of this, the strikes were relatively successful so that the basis for forming wider (political) conclusions more extensive than ‘striking works’ was extremely limited.

Wider Meanings and Implications

The nursery nurses’ strike does not, as some on the left argue, show what great potential there is for workers’ fighting back. It does not mean ‘if the nursery nurses could do it, then so can others!’ This line of argument is from the absurd ‘two swallows make a summer’ school of thought. To get a handle on what the strike represents a contextualisation is needed. Amongst the prime characteristics are that the nursery nurses are i) a group of public sector workers with ii) national collective bargaining, iii) who are low paid women workers (sic). The strike is understandable in terms of the vast majority of strikes today taking place in the public sector and where most women trade unionists are public sector workers. Union density for women is now the same level as it is for men (at 29%) with women comprising 47% of all union members.

The impact of this for other women workers, particularly in the private sector, is that the lessons are far from transferable. Whilst individual women workers may take some encouragement to unionise or strengthen union organisation from observing the nursery nurses’ strike or from contact with them through social networks, there are a number of reasons why the collective impact on wider layers of women workers will not be great. Among them are that the outcome was not a well-publicised resounding victory, and that contextual differences (differing nature of occupations, industrial sectors and workforces) in present circumstances militate against cross-fertilisation.

Rather, the nursery nurses’ strike has been like the firefighters’ strikes of 2002-2003. Other workers have saluted and respected their determination and defiance, and blame Labour for the intransigence of the employers. At the same time they will have noted the extent of the struggle the strikers had to undertake and the very modest results gained. Such wider sympathy is necessary without being sufficient to help workers win their disputes. Ultimately, political sympathy needs to be turned into industrial solidarity, no matter however difficult that is, if the hope represented by the political anger against Labour is not to become dissipated or remain ineffectual.