Youth and community workers may soon be balloted for industrial action if no progress is made with employers over an improved pay offer.
The Community and Youth Workers Union has rejected as insulting a suggested 3 per cent limit on pay and says the proposal that people qualified only to National Vocational Qualification level 2 can enter the profession is demeaning.
The union has praised New Labour's commitment to more generous funding but says local authorities are short-changing the service, particularly as the Government has stressed that its 5.9 per cent increase must be spent on youth work.
"Almost none of them are spending enough," said Doug Nicholls, the union's general secretary . "Yet the cost of our pay award could be funded by the amount that just one local authority is underspending."
The union has not revealed how much it wants but is looking for "a significant figure" to bring parity with teachers' pay.
The decision to consider industrial action came at a special weekend conference held by the CYWU. Another is planned for tomorrow at Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham. Invitations are being sent to everyone in the profession. The union has never before taken action nationally over a pay claim.
Mr Nicholls said things were at a delicate stage: "We're still in negotiations but there is no way we can recommend members accept 3 per cent," he said. "Ahead of the next conference, we'll be pointing out that there is a crisis and hoping that people will lobby - and that they'll prepare themselves for action."
From November 14, local government representation on the employers' side will halve and the body will be newly constituted. Saxon Spence, the outgoing employers chairman and executive member for lifelong learning on Devon county council, said the aim is to bring more consistency to negotiations.
She said employers had tried hard to reach a settlement with the CYWU. "We didn't make an offer - we never got to that stage - but we did advise them that we didn't see any prospect of going beyond 3 per cent," she said.
"We feel pretty fed up too. We've had three meetings but the union wasn't prepared to settle on a new structure.
"Taking on people at NVQ level 2 is about equal opportunities - people come in at all sorts of levels. We feel the service needs enthusiastic part-time staff. There's a significant issue of principle here."
Mr Nicholls said: "We have the highest incidence of case work brought against members of any trade union. From a sample 2,500 people, 750 cases were brought to us nationally - from ignorance of health and safety to not understanding ethical boundaries.
"That has nothing to do with equality and everything to do with lack of proper training. What other education profession would say that GCSE level is sufficient for people to work in it?"