A national one-day strike by school secretaries and caretakers due to take place on Wednesday has been deferred after “significant concessions” were made by the Department of Education.
Trade union Fórsa says the department has “finally conceded” that all school secretaries should be placed on the public service clerical officer scale, bringing an end to a four-decade old two-tier pay system.
The offer will also do away with the requirement for most secretaries to sign on during school breaks, as they will be able to retain existing work patterns while having their salaries paid over 52 weeks on a pro-rata basis.
The assimilation arrangements for transferring staff to new scales are to be finalised through discussions over the next two weeks.
The improvements, which will come into effect from September 1 of this year, will also see equalisation of annual leave arrangements on the basis of public service clerical officer provisions.
The department also agreed to improve sick pay arrangements, though Fórsa says it is still pursuing full equalisation with ETB-employed secretaries.
The union also said it expected the new employment conditions to be included in a model national contract for secretaries. It said the Department of Education had stated the administration of secretaries’ pay would be centralised, with the details to be discussed over the coming weeks.
While work remains to be done on the details of a similar package for caretakers, Fórsa said the department had agreed that the same principles would apply to them.
No agreement has yet been reached on the provision of pensions, but the parties will "try and seek a resolution of this outstanding issue in the final phase of talks on this long-standing dispute," the union said.
Noreen O’Callaghan, who has been a school secretary in Watergrasshill National School, Co Cork since 2001 said she was “absolutely delighted” with today's breakthrough.
Mrs O’Callaghan, who was planning on participating in the strike on Wednesday, said she had already been on strike three times over the last two years.
“Grant paid secretaries were paid from the ancillary grant and to be honest some secretaries got a raw deal,” she said.
Mrs O'Callaghan said the school secretary's workload has changed considerably since she started.
“When I started there were about 135 children [in Watergrasshill National School],” she said.
Now there are over 420 pupils, “and still the one secretary.”
Looks like I'm in Cork tomorrow after all @wghns just received email to say strike deferred. We are finally getting recognised as public servants. Sick pay. Maternity leave. Thank you @forsa_union_ie @apike1— Noreen O Callaghan née Cahill (@nobbynoreen) September 14, 2021
Mrs O’Callaghan said it was “unreal” that secretaries would finally be able to avail of sick pay.
“Last year Minister Foley said we could get sick pay if we had Covid. It took a pandemic to bring that change around!”
Mrs O’Callaghan said the next two weeks will be important in the assimilation of pay scales and discussing further pension rights.
But, today is a “good day to be a secretary,” she said.
Gina Byrne, secretary at Birdhill National School in North Tipperary said secretaries have campaigned “long and hard without gaining much ground,” and it was “fantastic” to finally see what appears to be a “major concession” from the Government.
She said she was looking forward to seeing “all the details” and added that she would like to thank her colleagues and families who have supported secretaries in their fight “for so long.”
Cionnaith Ó Súilleabháin, a school secretary for the last 10 years at Gaelscoil Mhichíl Uí Choileáin in Clonakilty, West Cork said today they have achieved the recognition which has been fought for since 1978.
"The government and relevant departments have conceded that like all workers, we should have statutory holiday and sick pay. These battles are now won as I understand it but they need swift implementation.
"The issue of the pension is of course outstanding and that battle will continue to be fought over the coming weeks."
It is important that we "do not lose sight of this as we celebrate the gains of the last 24 hours," he added.
Fórsa’s head of education Andy Pike said the outcome represented “a major victory” for school secretaries after a decades-long campaign.
“The determination and resolve of school secretaries and caretakers has finally put the end of the two-tier pay system within our grasp. No secretary or caretaker wanted to be on strike tomorrow, but their willingness to take that step in a just cause was crucial to this victory.
“On their behalf, I want to thank the thousands of parents, SNAs, teachers, principals, elected representatives and others who have shown growing support and solidarity for secretaries and caretakers, who are at the heart of the school community,” he said.
On Monday evening, the Fórsa branch committee agreed to defer the strike action for two weeks, pending confirmation of the implementation of the package.
A spokesperson at the Department of Education said there has been "significant progress" in the long running industrial dispute over pay and conditions for school secretaries outside of the ETB sector.
"Subject to agreement on all elements of the claim, the Department has offered to move School Secretaries’ pay rates to a scale which is aligned with the Clerical Officer Grade III pay scale within education and training boards on a pro rata basis with an effective date of implementation for these new pay arrangements of 1 September 2021. Pay rates will be pro rata according to a secretary’s current working pattern.
"The assimilation of School Secretaries to the CO Grade III pay scale will require further dialogue between the parties and an intensive engagement will take place of over the next two/three weeks to allow this to be finalised."
The Department will engage "directly" with unions in the coming weeks with regards to sick leave, annual leave and maternity provisions for secretaries, they added.