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A FIGHT FOR EQUALITY - THE NURSERY NURSES DISPUTE IN THE 1980s

Updated: Dec 4, 2020




From the minute Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979 the public sector trade unions knew that they were in for a hard time. It was clear to us all that a government pursuing the monetarist madness promoted by Milton Friedman and others would take on the trade unions . Those trade unions were committed to protecting their members pay and conditions AND the services their members provided to citizens. Protecting them from savage cuts in public spending and privatisation not mentioned in the Conservative party manifesto for the General Election.


At that time NALGO (later to merge with NUPE and COHSE to become UNISON ) represented a wide range of workers in local government , health , education and the public utilities. As Thatcher and her mad privateers moved to transfer public services in to the hands of the private sector one dispute followed another. There were attacks on the pay and conditions of thousands of public sector workers , the relentless pursuit of so called “ flexibility “ and a “business-like " approach ( cuts by another name ) , the outsourcing of local government services and the privatisation of gas, electricity and water.


But it wasn’t only public sector workers who were taking action. The 1980s are also remembered for the bitter News International dispute which changed the lives of print workers for ever, the year long national miners' strike and the shameful treatment of young workers. For NALGO activists the decade was defined by ongoing battles to protect jobs and services ; campaigns against privatisations ( e.g. the Keep Water Public Campaign ) ; and recruiting and organising members in local branches facing one battle after another. In July 1989 NALGO organised its first ever national all out strike and the experiences we went through together in that decade led to the push for merger and the creation of one public sector trade union for all - UNISON. Created in 1993 and now the largest UK union representing 1.6 million members.


In the midst of this maelstrom of trade union activity a group of women came together to fight for a better deal. They believed that they were underpaid and undervalued. They did an important job in a valued service but the employers failed to recognise - or even understand - the contribution they were making .They were the Nursery Nurses and their job was misunderstood and at the bottom of the local government pay scales.

Their battle for a better deal surfaced in Cheshire NALGO in November 1984 but at that time more than 200 Nursery Nurses in Bolton had been on all out strike for weeks. A claim for improved grading had been submitted to the national local government employers back in October 1981 and again in January 1982 without even a response. NALGO national conference in June 1984 recognised that progress with the claim had been “slow” ( ! ) and that branches should pursue local claims.


In Cheshire there were 400 nursery nurses and classroom assistants employed in nursery schools , infant/junior schools , secondary schools and special schools. They worked alongside teachers as part of a team and participated in the education process. They helped develop reading skills , writing and number skills as well as dealing with the many social and emotional challenges children faced in school.


For that they earned as little as £66 a week ( with a maximum of £84 ) . Promotion prospects were non-existent and there was no reward for the two years training they undertook. At the end of that training the student would - after passing a written examination - receive the National Nursery Examination Board Certificate ( NNEB ).

Nursery Nurses employed in local authority Education Departments started on a national salary rate of £3414 pa rising to a maximum of £ 4365 pa .Teachers were starting on a salary well over £5000 pa and an unqualified clerical assistant could expect a salary of up to £4959 pa.


NALGO took the view that this was low pay for skilled work - the national employers disagreed. In fact, it was worse than that because they refused to acknowledge that there was even a claim to be discussed. Dennis Maginn ( Salford NALGO branch ) and Pete Cresswell ( Liverpool NALGO Branch ) our two Northwest delegates on the national service group made it clear that the way forward was for as many branches as possible to submit detailed local claims. So, in November 1984 the Cheshire NALGO branch started to put together a claim for its nursery nurses in the hope that Cheshire County Council would open negotiations.


Little did they realise that five long years later that dispute would remain unresolved.


By April 1985 the nursery nurses in Clwyd had returned to normal working after seven months industrial action - without a settlement . They had been trying to convince Clwyd County Council that they had a case. Clwyd NALGO made it clear that although the strike was over the dispute continued as an individual equal pay case trundled through the Industrial ( now Employment ) Tribunal process.


That test case ended on 7 June 1985 after a three-day hearing without making a decision. The argument for a better pay deal for the 14,000 local government nursery nurses had been dealt a significant blow.


The test case was brought by Marion Leverton a nursery nurse from Connahs Quay , Clwyd. The basis of the claim was that under the Equal Pay Act the pay of a nursery nurse compared unfavourably with that of an unqualified male junior clerk. Leverton had a maximum wage of £5038 pa whereas the junior clerk was paid £5238 pa.


{ As I write this in November 2020 a new analysis published to mark Equal Pay Day (sic) says that the gains made by women in the 50 years since the Equal Pay Act 1970 have been eroded. Women in the UK face an uncertain economic future and childcare provision is in crisis. The full-time mean average gender pay gap is now 11.5%. But rest easy sister - the current Conservative Government is "fully committed to equal opportunity in the workplace............" }


In Cheshire the nursery nurses continued to organise throughout 1985 led from the outset by a group of formidable women including Edna Woolley , Jean Barton , Lynn Fitzsimons , Jean Mawdsley , Ann Bentley , Janet Deerden , Anne Lineker and Lynne Morris. Organised , committed and prepared to work together for the cause they were determined that their claim would not be overshadowed by more high-profile disputes.



Cheshire County Council - at that time led by Labour Councillor John Collins - refused to consider the Cheshire branch request to carry out a joint exercise to examine the nursery nurse duties and responsibilities or enter in to local negotiations. This left what was then a moderate branch in a moderate union no alternative but to ballot its members for industrial action. A mass meeting of nursery nurses in Northwich in January 1986 voted 3-1 in favour of a work to rule ballot. A work to rule for the nursery nurses would be a difficult step to take. As dedicated professionals they did not want to damage the service they provided day in day out to some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children but the employers intransigence left them with little choice. As one woman said at the mass meeting -

“We are at the bottom of the heap. You can’t go any lower in the eyes of the employer so what is there to lose ?”


The Cheshire Nursery Nurses voted “YES” in the industrial action ballot held in May 1986 and the decision was endorsed by NALGO National Executive Committee to start the action after the school holidays in September 1986.


An Industrial Action Committee ( the IAC ) was formed to include nursery nurses , classroom assistants and branch officers and tasked with providing advice and support to those taking action and to ensure countywide coordination - not easy in a county the size of Cheshire.


The IAC included a number of branch officers and 18 Nursery Nurses - 3 from each of the 6 districts in Cheshire. This IAC was the network that kept things going throughout the dispute. It helped keep parents, teachers and school governors on board as nursery nurses explained the reason for their dispute at difficult meetings all over the county. Women who had never spoken in public before addressed packed evening meetings in their local communities.


The core of the work to rule meant that nursery nurses would not teach or stand in for teaching staff and this was going to require the support of the teacher's unions. It was also essential that parents had a full understanding of the action and leaflets were produced giving the background and asking parents to lobby their local Councillors. Many did - they were well aware of the valuable contribution nursery nurses and classroom assistants made to the school team.


From this point forward the Industrial Action Committee and the women leaders of the Cheshire Nursery Nurses worked tirelessly to keep the pressure on and explain the genuine claim they had for regrading.


After only 21 days of action Cheshire County Council was calling for an urgent national review of the grading prescription but they still refused to come to a local settlement or even a review of duties.


The dispute took a nasty turn when Labour Leader of the Council John Collins claimed that NALGO was targeting special schools. He was told that special schools ARE most affected because that is where nursery nurses are regularly working well above their job descriptions.


From the outset NALGO North West & North Wales District Council was supportive of the Cheshire industrial action . At the October 1986 meeting held in Wigan Anne Lineker a Cheshire Nursery Nurse based in Warrington had to sit through three and a half hours of the meeting before having the opportunity to call on all branches in the north west to take up or renew activity on the nursery nurse issue and submit local claims. Anne spoke from the heart and won tremendous applause for a short , sharp speech urging delegates to follow the lead of Bolton , Clwyd and now Cheshire.


On Saturday 22 November 1986 NALGO held a national rally in Central Hall Manchester to build on the growing pressure for recognition and fair pay for nursery nurses and classroom assistants.


Alison Mitchell an organising officer from NALGO HQ in London told the 500 plus delegates that the North West was not alone. There was a coordinated claim in South Wales ; many branches in Yorkshire and Humberside were submitting claims and that pressure was building in Scotland and the East Midlands.


A series of half to three day strikes across the North West and North Wales were planned during Summer 1987. Dennis Maginn from the national committee said it was vital to apply pressure at a local level if we are to bring the national employers' body to the negotiating table. Some speakers were anxious about branches being left to “ go it alone” and pressed for a national focus.


A report of the rally in the Cheshire NALGO branch magazine concluded by saying - more in hope than with conviction - that there was a clear determination to push the matter to a successful conclusion in 1987. But we would still be talking about the dispute at the Cheshire NALGO branch AGM in November 1989.


But there was some good news as we looked forward to Public Services Year 1987 .

In the true spirit of how NALGO and NUPE were working together NUPE members in Cheshire voted to join NALGO members in the work to rule in schools. Rodney Bickerstaffe NUPE General Secretary had attended the recent NALGO District Council meeting and spoke of his support for the nursery nurses claim.


At the end of 1986 the Cheshire nursery nurses had gone through a really difficult school term of bitter industrial action. Torn between a professional duty to the children in their care and the genuine regrading claim they were pursuing many of them were exhausted. Edna Woolley one of the leaders on the Industrial Action Committee told the Cheshire NALGO AGM that some nursery nurses in Wigan are so low paid that they qualify for benefits for part of the year. She reminded the AGM that the Bolton and Clwyd nursery nurses had been picked off and defeated and that this must not happen in Cheshire. She moved a motion calling for unstinting branch support and was given an assurance that it would be provided.


This was followed by a move to escalate the industrial action by ,for example ,imposing a ban on nursery nurses covering the supervision of children at lunchtimes. Lynne Morris and Anne Linaker argued that if the nursery nurses are to win more pressure had to be put on the employers. Their intervention led to some less than comradely exchanges.

The proposal to step up the action was followed by several of those


“ I agree with everything that’s just been said , but.........”

speeches where it is obvious the speaker does not agree with ANYTHING said before the “but”.


It was argued that escalation could lead to a court injunction from the employers and that the matter should be referred to the Industrial Action Committee. This was the first time the wider branch learnt that the nursery nurse leaders were starting to move in a different direction to some branch officers.


Not a new situation to those of us who had been involved in industrial action before but clearly of concern at a time when individual nursery nurses were under considerable pressure and the employer was digging in.


Tension between local and national leaders was common in disputes at this time. Local v national, elected officials v full timers and even between different camps within the ranks of those taking action. One of the unwritten laws of industrial action is that the longer members are in dispute the more determined they are to win all their demands, to concede nothing. This can present a real problem for those trying to negotiate a settlement !


There had been a suggestion to submit an equal pay claim but to do so required finding a suitable male comparator. A regional officer thought a motor mechanic might fit the bill. The training was similar , the physical demands about the same but it was felt the "knowledge " presented a problem. He thought that most of the nursery nurse "knowledge" would be considered more "innate" than "learnt".......? That's women for you - natural born nursery nurses !


As we moved in to 1987 the nursery nurses marked 21 weeks of their work to rule with a lobby of the County Council Education Committee only to be told that the employer ( Cheshire County Council ) was “vigorously pressing” the national negotiators for a review of the national agreement. Support from teachers , parents and some school governors remained strong but the dispute was taking a heavy toll on the nursery nurses. At the branch Executive meeting on 24 February 1987 internal tensions were exposed in some angry exchanges when branch publicity officer Frank Hont criticised leading branch officers for not involving the nursery nurses more in the day to day running of the dispute. As a member of the IAC he had seen first-hand the impact this long running dispute was having on the members and their families


As we entered the seventh month of industrial action the County Council made its position clear - no local negotiations. Nursery Nurses on the Industrial Action Committee expressed anger at this refusal to try to resolve the dispute and on 29 April 1987 pushed for escalation of the current action. More frequent lobbies and days / half days of strike action were agreed as the members maintained a united front in the face of the Councils intransigence.



By July 1987 the differences between leading branch officers and the nursery nurses on the Industrial Action Committee were clear to see. Speaker after speaker at the Branch Executive on 13 July called for an escalation of the dispute and a branch levy of all members to finance selective strikes ; supportive action by social workers to boycott case conferences in special schools and ; a boycott by the whole branch membership of all Councillor queries. In line with our time-honoured bureaucratic procedures these options were referred to the Cheshire branch service conditions committee for consideration .........

A decision did eventually emerge and a ballot was organised. The branch decided to ballot the nursery nurses on a levy of 50p per week to finance short lightning strikes. The levy to be on nursery nurses and not the whole branch membership.

So, twelve months on a new strategy emerged from the Industrial Action Committee -

  • Continue the work to rule

  • Support all regional and national lobbies

  • A levy ( on nursery nurses ) of 50p a week

  • Any pay lost through taking strike action to be reimbursed in full from the strike fund

  • The branch to ballot all 5300 NALGO members in Cheshire to give support for an all-member levy to support the strike fund.

In October 1987 the County Council came up with a novel tactic - they pretended to make an offer to settle the dispute. This “offer “ came with a deadline. Accept by 0900 on Friday 23 October 1987 , return to normal working on 2 November 1987 and we will forget all about you daring to challenge our authority.


After 60 weeks of industrial action the employers said that they would backdate to 1 September 1987 ( ie 12 months AFTER the industrial action started ) any national agreement that was agreed. The “offer” was rejected but reinforced a feeling among nursery nurses that Councillors still had little understanding of their concerns. A bitter blow for a group of women who had shown solidarity and determination for more than a year.

At the November Branch Executive, the anger and frustration that had built up over the past year boiled over. The Industrial Action Committee attempted to move a motion of no confidence in the Branch Chief Steward. After more than 90 minutes of acrimonious exchanges the motion was deferred. The Chief Steward was unavoidably absent so the Branch Secretary reported on the lack of progress in the dispute locally (following the Councils offer that wasn’t an offer ) and at national negotiating level. Real problems were arising over lunch time supervision at a Cheshire special school and this was at the heart of the acrimony between the branch Chief Steward and the members taking action. The nursery nurses involved believed that the branch was apologising to the County Council for their legitimate industrial action. It was clear to many on the Branch Executive Council that if the members taking industrial action have lost faith in the branch officers , if they sense that they do not have unqualified support we are in trouble.


This lack of trust surfaced at the branch AGM in December 1987.


It was a night of recriminations as Edna Woolley (on behalf of the Industrial Action Committee) explained how schools were attempting to break the dispute by using unqualified staff to provide lunchtime cover in special schools. Ray Barron (branch Education Department Convenor) described how head teachers had been given authority to appoint who they liked - “even straight off the streets if need be”. The members involved could see how this was undermining their action and Edna said the Chief Steward should go for failing to support them. She moved a motion of no confidence.

In a true NALGO compromise the motion was amended to give the Chief Steward a slap on the wrist and we moved on. The whole sorry episode highlighted the lack of a clear policy for the management of industrial action by the branch.

  • Who drives the action forward ?

  • Who takes urgent day to day tactical decisions ?

  • Who responds to urgent requests for a response from the employer ?

At the AGM it was clear that the branch officers thought they should and the nursery nurses on the Industrial Action Committee disagreed.

This needed sorting and quick but it required a measure of trust. And that appeared to be in short supply as the dispute entered a new year.


Before that year started the nursery, nurses came out in force to lobby the County Council meeting in late December 1987. Many wore fancy dress and gift-wrapped parcels were presented to some of our favourite Councillors by Mother Christmas. The parcels were empty - as empty as the promises made time and again by Councillors at previous meetings over the past 15 months.


The employer stepped up their cynical and divisive tactics. Parents were sent letters from the County Council saying how unreasonable the staff are ; small groups of nursery nurses were called together by management to be told everything will be sorted soon ; individual letters were sent to staff urging them to ignore the trade union ; disciplinary action threatened against individual members of the union etc.

And still the members stayed solid , still kept to the work to rule , still remained at one with their trade union and continued to believe in their fair claim.


In March 1988 - after more than 80 weeks of industrial action in Cheshire - the national local government negotiators agreed to a national review of the duties and responsibilities of all nursery nurses and classroom assistants. This followed a call for such a review from the North Western joint council ( of employers and trade unions).

A mass meeting of Cheshire nursery nurses and classroom assistants on 24 March 1988 passed on the baton to our national negotiators. Leaders of the Cheshire members were adamant that only through returning to pre industrial action working could an effective review operate.


Faced with an intractable employer and a considerable amount of ill will from some managers and head teachers over 400 women had stood firm. Committed professionals who cared passionately for the children and young people they worked with the women knew their cause was just.


On the 14 April 1988 the Branch Executive agreed to terminate the Industrial Action Committee and to pass future discussions to the reconvened Nursery Nurses Working Group.


As the dispute faded from the local news nursery nurses from across the country came together on 2 May 1988 and agreed a national claim for better pay ,a career structure and a policy for in service training. This was to be submitted as part of NALGOs input to the national review. The joint review panel agreed to visit five local authorities to see “ what happens on the ground”.

Wakefield , Bolton, Mid Glamorgan , Cambridgeshire and Waltham Forest but not Cheshire.

As this long , drawn out dispute entered its final phase 2,000 nursery nurses lobbied the national negotiators meeting in London on 7 July 1988. A good contingent from Cheshire attended as the negotiators met to consider the findings of the joint review.

And then it was over ....but it wasn’t.


The employer's proposals fell far short of what NALGO had hoped for from the joint review. A new pay grade was proposed but it would be left to individual Councils to decide which staff be placed where ; no career structure was suggested ; no moves to professional recognition. NALGO National committee member Dennis Maginn explained the offer / proposition to a mass meeting of subdued Cheshire members on 20 October 1988. Dennis explained that the NALGO negotiators were not making a recommendation but would put it to delegates from all affected branches in December.

In November the Cheshire nursery nurses voted to accept the employer's proposition.

They knew it was a lousy offer but decided they did not want to take further action.


The final deal was agreed by branches by a narrow majority on 5 December 1988. NALGO National Officer Alison Mitchell made it clear to the meeting that negotiations were exhausted and more industrial action would be required to secure a better deal.

Much would now still depend on local negotiations around grades - a daunting prospect based on experience in Cheshire.

The new grading did give scope for employers to pay more to those carrying out higher level duties and a new improved standard grade but members had expected so much more. As we moved in to 1989, we learnt that , true to form , Cheshire was to be the last employer in the north west to pay the new rates.


The Cheshire work to rule had lasted a total of 84 weeks.

Many of those involved were in dispute with their employer for the first time in their working life.


They produced leaflets , posters , lapel stickers and badges. They attended lobbies , spoke to parents and teachers , addressed rallies and travelled all over the country to press their claim with sympathetic trade unionists, spoke on local radio and acted in solidarity.

They pressed their case with experienced Councillors and MPs.

Some members worked in small numbers in isolated workplaces in some sleepy hollow in rural Cheshire but they stood their ground.


For those of us who supported them and worked alongside them during this long , long dispute their solidarity and comradeship was impressive and dignified. We gained so much from their united efforts. Lessons were learnt for struggles to come and real friendships made to sustain us all in trade union activity through the 1990s and beyond.





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