Fear, Mistrust and a Gentle Nature: Unions in Pre-schools and Day Nurseries (and some suggestions for future action) – Ben, Education Workers Branch.

If you work in Early Years Education (EYE) you will have been told countless times how essential you are, how important your work is and how so many people couldn’t do your job. You will have been told this by parents, friends, the government and business owners. Sadly, this perceived importance isn’t backed up financially with the average pay packet of an EYE worker falling well below the salary scales of equivalent practitioners in schools and colleges. Suddenly you don’t feel so essential or important anymore. A big step towards better wages would be for early years educators to unionise. Unionised employees “earn on average 10% more than non-unionised colleagues” (Unite, 2018), so why haven’t they?

Lack of Education on Rights at Work

Whether taken on as an apprentice or as an EYE student at college, workers rights and the importance of trade unions are not taught to prospective workers at any point during their professional development. Safeguarding is brought up in relation to keeping records and keeping children and staff safe, yet at no point during training or education are factors such as the right to join a union, the right to organise or the benefits of joining a union discussed. This is in contrast to school teacher training where students will have contact with a trade union representative at some point during their time at university and/or in their training school or college.

Trade Unions in Education

In EYE, as in all other levels of education, workers in the same industry and workplace are often in separate unions based on pay grade or job role. Whilst the merger of teaching trade unions the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) into the National Education Union (NEU), a union which aims to be an industrial union for all workers in education, is a positive step forward, NEU’s hands have been tied by an agreement with larger unions such as Unison, GMB etc. not to ‘poach’ members working in state education. EYE staff can be members of Unison, Unite, GMB or Voice, a trade union known for its no strike policy, where recognition agreements have been successfully negotiated. It is just as likely that they will not be members of any union at all. Overall, the picture is very patchy compared to schools and colleges where, in spite of the break up of the sector through academisation, free schools and multi-academy trusts (MATs), the legacy of nationally negotiated contracts means the vast majority of teaching staff will be protected by a trade union whose central focus and core membership is from the education sector. 

The consequences of the absence of strong, national structures linking together unionised workers in EYE, particularly at the rank-and-file level, are shown in the recent history of industrial disputes in this sector. In Scotland, between 2003-4, public sector nursery nurses, members of Unison, were getting fed up with New Labour government stone-walling on the child care crisis, in particular expanded job descriptions but no pay increases for the added responsibilities. In fact, there had been no salary review since 1988. With the support of parents and their communities they took action. On March 1st, 5,000 mainly female nursery nurses began an indefinite strike action demanding a national settlement on pay rises in line with their current job requirements and the importance of their work.

Though there was a lot of popular support, and of course sacrifice on their part, Unison let them down, settling for a pledge of a national review of pay and working conditions for at some point in the future. This ended the 12 week strike and led to separate deals made by individual councils, creating a wide disparity between working conditions in different areas. Whilst there were a number of reasons for the only partial success, such as lack of strong picketing, Unison’s relation to Labour, and individual councils settling at different rates, the lack of rank-and-file organisation and an ability to unite more effectively with other education workers doubtless played an important role in this outcome. 

No Confidence in Unions

EYEs that are aware of union activity (from personal experience in EYE or from previous work in other industries) have little appetite for industrial action or trade union organising. A contributing factor may be years of watching trade unions lose their power and impact as well as seeing the odds stacked against them by consecutive governments. Anti-trade union laws were introduced in 1980 and extended in 1982 and 1990. From 1997-2010 a gutless Labour Party had no interest in reversing them and 2016’s Trade Union Act made industrial action even more difficult. Young workers perceive trade unions to be ineffective and / or irrelevant in helping them. Often they lack understanding regarding the role of trade unions within the workplace, if they are aware of the work of trade unions at all. A trade union appears as an intimidating concept that signifies conflict with an employer, something that makes vulnerable young staff (apprentices, NVQ students, new staff on probation periods) feel anxious. Several workers I’ve spoken to indicated that they felt as though joining a union would make them more vulnerable and target for negative attention.

Pathways into Early Years Education

Understanding the pathways into EYE helps us to understand why trade union activity could seem intimidating. Two common pathways into early years work are apprenticeships and further education college courses. Both sets of students have coursework and placements to complete in order to achieve the right qualifications.

Apprenticeships often tie a student to one organisation, with a good chance of getting a job at its completion. Being aware of this an apprentice is unlikely to challenge for better terms and conditions, the prospect of a “secure job” and management having the power to offer such a thing being a strong deterrent.

Though freer to move between placements and ending up with a wider range of experiences, a college student is equally tied into the idea of passing and failing their course and therefore getting/not getting a job. Often they need assistance and information in order to complete assignments and coursework, information which management are best placed to provide. If a student is reliant on compliance and support from management or senior colleagues it is unlikely they would be seeking to fight to improve work conditions. Understandably lacking confidence in mainstream unions, a student may be concerned that taking action would affect their future. Add to these problematic pathways the practice of “probation periods” on the contracts of new employees and you’ve got yourself a real recipe for vulnerability and fear.

Division into teams or the effect of ratios

Less specific to EYE is the problem of workers being split into teams, particularly in Day Nurseries, where teams are usually split into 3/4 age based “rooms” or “classes”, usually babies, toddlers and preschool age classes. For good reasons ratios are maintained that ensure a safe number of children: adults is maintained, and because of these ratios it is unlikely that two members of staff from the same team are going to be on breaks at the same time, reducing the time where workers can discuss non-work related issues without it being used against them. Line managers will also use the break rooms and their presence is unlikely to inspire talk of change. Divisions into teams can create cliques and feelings of distance between different groups of staff. Team members that do try and socialise with staff from the other age “rooms” during their work hours will of course find themselves told off by management and discouraged from doing so.

IWW Education Workers: An Alternative

There is a union that has different values and ways of organising than the mainstream ones: the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It is an industrial union because its structure and principles are based on uniting all workers within a particular sector of the economy. This way, EYE would be one equal part of an education wide union that would include workers from Early Years Education right through to Further Education.

This type of union organising enables solidarity amongst all education workers to demand and achieve our rights by having a strong support group to help us take risks and to stay strong together when management tries to weaken us. The IWW Education Workers argues for a different view of education, and for a dual-card, rank and file strategy, where IWW members play an active role in the Trades Union Congress union recognised in their workplace, and use the IWW as a vehicle to co-ordinate action. You can read more about this here.

What could be done?

Parent Action

It is likely that the close relationship EYE staff have with parents (customers) would help when seeking support for change. Parents see their key person, or at least a staff member, every day and build up good relationships with them as the person that helps to educate and care for their child. It makes sense that parents should want their key person to be treated well. Building strong relationships with parents not only creates a good classroom environment it provides the basis for mutual support. Childcare is an industry where the customer as well as reputation can make or break a business. Were the customers (parents) and staff to work together, they would hold a better position for negotiation of workers’ rights. A parent lead petition to the director of the day nursery would be extremely effective. It would only take one or two active parents/customers, who supported the struggle of the workers, for the Day nursery to have a massive situation on their hands. If their own client base were demanding improved conditions then not only does this reduce the pressure on staff members, but also forces the directors to either look uncaring and unprofessional company, or to get started improving conditions and wages for their staff.


Handing out information to parents and customers of day nurseries and pre-schools regarding the average salary for EYE staff, along with a list of common complaints within the industry could serve as a starting point for identifying sympathetic parents and workers. Leaflets and information should be phrased to help parents understand that the happiness of their child’s key person significantly and positively affects the experience their child has. It should also emphasise the importance of the job to society and to the future of the children, contrasted with facts about the average wages, lack of a year on year wage progression and additional costs paid for by the workers. Other information should come directly from the workforce and cover their specific gripes and issues.

Appealing to Early Years Educators – A Listening Ear and Energising Attitude

To get this information across:

* Initial contact and attempts at organising should follow opportunities for staff to meet up with each other in small groups to talk about short term goals alongside the longer range ones. For example, a short term goal might be to wear badges that say something like Children, Teachers, Caregivers Unite. Where there is no history or confidence that a union can even help, let alone win, it is important that our demands for higher wages and better working conditions are grounded in other less complicated issues but ones that are still crucial to our continuing commitment to Early Years Education – such as an inclusive set of benefits. Long term strategy, based on a vision of an educational system that treats all children, staff, parents or caregivers fairly and honestly, is of utmost importance if we are to win victories, small or large.

* An organising approach to EYE staff should be focused around being a group that will listen and offer examples of how unions have helped workers in similar positions to change the status quo.

*As many EYE staff feel ignored and unimportant to their management, the union should be the ear ready to listen and gently introduce, and follow up on, the idea of organising, solidarity and direct action – starting with a support group and leading to an area wide Education Workers Network.

* Produce a basic workplace rights poster or leaflet using non-aggressive language, with links to helpful and practical websites and contact information for the Union.

* Come up with a standard set of demands for EYE staff such as:

  • Respectable wages with a yearly progression.
  • All training to be done inside work hours rather than after work or at weekends.
  • Apprentices/NVQ students to never be used as staff numbers (already illegal but happens all the time).
  • Staff to not pay for their own DBS database checks.
  • Staff not to have to pay for their own business car insurance if they help transport colleagues.
  • Staff holiday to be managed efficiently so that staff are not left with a reduced work force or forced to move between company settings.

* Ensure that the workplace representation the IWW can offer is the best it can be. To be taken seriously by young staff that are not used to fighting for themselves the IWW needs to be able to offer support in meetings with directors or managers that can be incredibly intimidating for inexperienced or experienced vulnerable staff.

* Target the biggest nursery groups in the area as these companies have more to lose and are a larger workforce thus more chance of staff willing to be involved. Larger companies also have less of a family feel, and there is an increased likelihood that staff are unhappy and won’t be full of misplaced loyalty to an owner/director. A larger company also means that parents will have a stronger connection to their key person and team as opposed to the company itself.

What should be done?

Believe in our ability to work together to make changes, big and small, in our educational system and in society in general.

Build networks and coalitions with a variety of workers’ rights and human rights campaigns. Put and keep education workers and our issues in the public eye and open to internal and public discussion and debate.

Stay off the defensive, share ideas about an ideal education system, and action points on how we can move in that direction.

Have a plan that is specific but not rigid. Be bold. Ask for help. Learn from each other, from our children, and from our parents. Think and talk about the motto “Another World is Possible”.

Celebrate our efforts to give young children the love and attention they love, and to give ourselves and our co-workers the respect and support they need.

Remember, we are important!

Thanks to FW Susan Dorazio from the Clydeside Branch for her contributions to this article.

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