By a Unison schools convenor
A quarter of a million school support workers are voting this month to begin action to stop the cuts to education.
A decade of Tory austerity has eroded teaching assistants’ and office staff pay, and the support disadvantaged young people receive in school. Contracting out has slashed catering and cleaners’ pay to below the living wage.
Yet this is the first time a union has sought to mobilise resistance to these cuts.
Every Unison member in English schools should have received an e-ballot by email by now. They have until 5 March to fill it in and submit it online. The union has the facilities to tell who has not returned their ballot and can seek to engage with those members by phone, letter or in person.
So long as school reps and branch officials use this time well, we should exceed by far the anti-union law that demands a 50 per cent turnout and 40 per cent of all those balloted voting Yes. A legal ballot for an actual strike would then follow.
The exercise is also an excellent opportunity to recruit more members to Unison. School meetings, leafleting at the gates, recruiting more stewards: these activities can help us establish networks of activists who can keep up the momentum on the ground, and begin to win solidarity from parents, teachers and students.
This strike has been a long time coming.
Funding per pupil has fallen by 8% over the decade. Support services for Special Educational Needs have suffered under the 40 per cent cut to local authority grants. Failing academies and school “restructures” have thrown office staff and TAs out of work at the first whiff of financial trouble.
Those who remain complain of being expected to do unpaid overtime (on average one day a week), working above their grade, i.e. teaching classes, and increasing harassment as managers attempt to get more from fewer.
School support staff have already shown they are more than willing to strike in defence of their jobs, their livelihoods and the service they are proud to deliver. Recent years have seen TA strikes in Durham, Derby and Glasgow.
Now we have the chance to take our fight to the source of evil: the Tory government. Let’s do it.
The Teachers’ union NEU has just concluded a similar consultative ballot. A huge majority, 84 per cent, endorsed the union’s call for strike action, but the turnout was low, 31 per cent.
Our aim in Unison must be to meet their figure for a Yes vote, but beat their turnout, reaching beyond the 50 per cent that the anti-union laws demand in public sector strike ballots. If we succeed, we can pile on the pressure in both unions to call an official ballot.