Unite strike will impact ‘vulnerable children’: Education Authority

School transport for special needs pupils and some school meals services could be severely disrupted this coming week amid an ongoing dispute between the Education Authority (EA) and the Unite union.

By Mark Rainey
Friday, 22nd April 2022, 7:09 pm

The EA has said it does not have the power to renegotiate a UK-wide local government pay agreement finalised in February this year, while the union said the EA, unlike Translink, has not “tabled any new solutions” to avert the expected disruption.

Industrial action involving Unite members, from Monday onwards, will also cause disruption to a number of services supplied by local councils, including bin collections and recycling centres.

On Thursday, Translink and the GMB and Unite unions said a much wider public transport strike that would have “paralysed” bus services across Northern Ireland had been averted – for now.

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Striking Unite members pictured during a protest at Stormont last month. Picture: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press.

The dispute over pay has not yet been fully resolved, however, and further industrial action could still be on the cards if drivers reject a fresh offer from Translink.

The EA has hit out at Unite for failing to agree exemptions for the benefit of particularly vulnerable children.

A spokeswoman said: “EA has made further requests for exemptions for Special School staff, and for transport staff transporting pupils to Special Schools. These have been rejected by Unite. We firmly believe these requests to be reasonable and valid and remain unclear about the basis for them being rejected by Unite given the impact on some of the most vulnerable children.”

She added: “We are working hard to minimise the anticipated disruption to some EA services as a result of the strike action... scheduled to commence Tuesday, April 26 to Sunday, May 1 and Tuesday, May 3 to Sunday, May 8.”

The spokeswoman went on to say: “National negotiations are due to commence on the 22/23 Pay Award and we would encourage Unite to join their trade union colleagues to engage constructively on this. Additionally, we are firmly committed to engaging collectively with all of our trade unions on local issues impacting on pay and conditions.”

The Unite union says that its members, such as school bus drivers, carrying and responsible for both mainstream and SEN (special educational needs) children, are being paid an hourly rate of £9.86 – just 36p above the national minimum hourly rate.

“It is a sad indictment that Translink entered into negotiations resulting in mainstream pupils having their transport service restored next week, while EA management feel it appropriate to offer comment while not tabling any similar solutions to attempt to avert industrial action.”

All but two councils will be impacted by the main strike action over the next two weeks, however, Newry, Mourne and Down Council is set to see a one-day strike take place on May 6, while Ards and North Down is due to see strike action take place from May 3 to 15.

All of the affected councils are asking people to check their websites and social media platforms for daily updates on bin collections and other services.

In a statement outlining the potential impact of the strikes in Belfast, the city council also explained why non-union labour can be easily drafted in to ensure services continue.

“It is unlawful for employment agencies to supply labour to employers specifically for the purposes of covering work normally carried out by employees who are taking part in lawful industrial action,” the council said.

• Information supplied by the Education Authority NI states:

It is anticipated that the main areas of disruption for home to school transport will be:

· Greater Belfast area, including Lisburn & Castlereagh

· Antrim & Newtownabbey

· Mid & East Antrim

· Fermanagh & Omagh Council areas

There will also be localised disruption to services in other areas, with particular disruption expected to routes servicing Special Schools.

Further detail on specific areas of disruption will be published on our website, www.eani.org.uk/industrialactionupdates, and our social media channels on Monday 25 April (afternoon).

Our Transport Helpline will also be available to support parents on Monday from 9.30am – 12.30pm & 1.30pm – 4.30pm. Please call 028 9598 5959.

Parents are encouraged to begin to make alternative transport arrangements.