NIPSA Term Time Workers: Victory Achieved at Last!

By Brian Booth Socialist View Spring 2001

NORTHERN IRELANDíS most significant and bitter industrial dispute in many years -"term time workers in education", will come to an end on 12 March 2001, with the signing of an agreement between the unions and management of the five Education and Library Boards, heralding an end to "forced" term time working in education.

In monetary terms, this victory has given £5 million per year to a group of around 5,000 workers. This is a pay rise of up to £3,000 for some full time workers. In Northern Ireland terms this is massive.

NIPSA (Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance), the lead union in the dispute, which holds over 90% of the workers affected, had five branches involved. Branch 517, whose leadership is made up of Socialist Party members, played a crucial role and organised the workers, mainly women, into a fighting unit who endeavoured to secure victory from their employer.

How it started

The spark of this struggle was the removal -by the "New" Labour Minister for Health & Social Services, Harriet Harmon -of the "Jobseekers Allowance" during school closure from term time secretaries, technicians and classroom assistants. To add insult to injury; the Boards and the Department of Education said that they were not to blame, despite the fact that during school closures; some of "their" staff faced going to the wall with financial ruin through no fault of their own, through being refused any pay; including retainer fees, for these three months. In effect, the Boards wished to retain the staff, but not pay for the privilege in any way whatsoever. This total disregard helped to stoke the already strong flames of discontent. One manager is quoted in a daily paper as having said at a meeting with term time workers, whilst metaphorically patting them on the head "sure this is a great wee job for women, you can be at home with your kids in the holidays".

The dispute started back in August 1999. NIPSA lodged a claim for a retainer fee and launched a letter writing campaign targetting politicians and employers. Because of the unrelenting letters the local politicians were receiving, support became widespread from every political party in the North. Within three to four months all 26 local councils in Northern Ireland had passed motions in support of the campaign and calling for retainer pay.

Campaigning

The workers in NIPSA 517 organised petition-signing at shopping centres and town centres over a three-week period to highlight their plight to the general public and raise awareness.

Over 22,000 signatures were collected including that of the Education Minister, Martin McGuinness, who signed the petition at the Irish National Teachers Organisation conference in Derry; back in May 2000. The members organised pickets at their Board's annual Christmas dinner two years in a row, then demonstrated at the NI Assembly twice in a month to highlight and seek support for the claim.

At that point, management made an offer of a one off payment of £200 as a final resolution. The Minister stated that they should accept the "generous" offer. This offer was also recommended by our NIPSA union official, who had no mandate to do so. 'Ill-is pathetic offer was put to the members of NIPSA throughout the North, with all but one person rejecting it. The offer was put at a time when term time workers were most vulnerable, at the end of June 2000, and it was expected by the Minister, the management and OUR union official that they would be broken by this stage. How they were mistaken! The workers' goal was to win by the end of the summer term, but that was not to be, and the campaign took a setback for a couple of months whilst schools were closed.

Strike threat

Soon after the term restart, the campaign got back to life with the union wishing to put a proposal for resolution to the management side. Management rejected this point blank in November 2000. Their response was, "we will not pay a retainer fee, not now, not ever". This caused the unions to cease negotiations and consult members on strike action. A motion was carried by the NI Assembly calling for the payment of a retainer fee, with all but two Sinn Fein MLAs dissenting. This added further momentum to the campaign. Strike action was seen now as inevitable, and with massive public support to the campaign, the workers were buoyed.

NIPSA 517 wanted rolling action, one day in the first week, two days in the second week, and so on until an all out situation occurred. The other branches were of the view that they couldn't sustain such action, and a compromise of one day a week for an indefinite period was agreed. The balloting of members was due to take place at school return after the Christmas holidays. On initial consultations over 97% wished to take action, and management knew this. The dispute coming to a head seemed to be the ideal tonic which forced a serious offer from management on 15 December 2000. Instead of retainer pay, the offer was of FULL pay; NIPSA 517's members saw the offer as being at last something positive, although they were sceptical of it and the intentions. It was possibly a basis for a settlement. Further negotiations were needed and clarification was sought and received.

Victory

After lengthy negotiations and changes to the offer, all for the better, a draft final offer was put to members with well in excess of 98% voting in favour to accept.

In brief the offer consisted of:

Full all year round pay (up to £2,500 increase in pay).
Full entitlement to sick pay. ...Full maternity pay.
Between 6-14 additional annual leave days (based on length of service).
Increased pension entitlement.
A review of all temporary posts with a view to making them permanent.
An end to term time working in education.

Judge for yourself, militant action pays. This victory will now hopefully be replicated in Britain and serve as an example of how to organise and lead workers in struggle. 5,000 term time workers know what they have achieved,and NIPSA 517's term time workers are proud of their special effort and achievement!




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