BRITAIN'S lowest-paid education staff are set for their first-ever national strike unless they receive an improvement on their 3.5 per cent pay offer.
A strike by youth and community workers would paralyse thousands of public and private-sector facilities, from creches and youth centres for the disaffected to careers offices and community support networks.
Doug Nicholls, general secretary of the Community and Youth Workers Union, told FE Focus morale was at rock bottom among his members. "There has never been a mood like there is now,'' he said. "Youth and community workers operate in the most disadvantaged areas yet are the lowest paid people within education.'' A special conference is being held tomorrow in Oldbury, West Midlands, to discuss developments. Strike action looks more likely than ever after employers withdrew an offer for a joint meeting with the Government to argue the case for more cash.
Parity with teachers' pay has been eroded by 30 per cent in recent years and the service has been hardest hit by cuts in local government spending, said Mr Nicholls.
Recent research showed that highly-skilled youth workers earned on average pound;18,000 a year for jobs equivalent in scale and responsibility to primary school heads, he said. "They hold together policies for lifelong learning, active citizenship, community education and social inclusion - their skills are in great demand.'' Tomorrow's conference is unprecedented in 40 years of Joint National Committee negotiations. These involve representatives of the CYWU, which, with 4,500 members represents the majority of youth and community workers. Other unions affected are Unison, the National Union of Teachers and lecturers' union Nafthe. The employers' side comprises English and Welsh local authorities and the voluntary sector.
Morale is said to be particularly low in London, the best-funded service in the country until the demise of the Inner London Education Authority. There are now acute problems in recruitment.
A recent survey in the Sunday Times ranked youth and community work as the fifth most stressful occupation and reported high levels of stress-related absenteeism. There is anger among workers that employers have rejected moves towards parity in pay for full- and part-time workers.
A strike would affect many areas of acute need. "Our workers on the streets deal with socially-excluded youngsters, drugs misuse and things such as the racial situation in Bradford," said a CYWU spokesman. "They are also a link with further education. And, with the advent of Connexions and learning mentors, also have contracts with children.'' "Employers have simply underestimated the position on pay," said Mr Nicholls. "Many of our members have said that if they do not make a stand, the services they provide will disappear next year."