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Cath Lowther
Job title
General secretary
In September 2023, members of the Association of Educational Psychologists (AEP) union in England and Wales voted decisively in favour of taking industrial action over pay. 

It was the union’s first vote for industrial action since 2011 – but it secured AEP an improved pay offer which members accepted.

AEP General Secretary Cath Lowther talked to the TUC about the negotiations and dispute. 

Pay negotiations begin 

Cath explained: “The campaign started right back in the Spring of 2022. We began our round of pay negotiations, asking for a 9% pay increase and a restructure of pay points. 

We were called into a meeting at the end of October, where we were presented with the ‘final offer’. 

It was way below what we had been asking for; a blanket £1,925 across all pay points, which worked out as between 2 and 5% (averaging 3%) depending on what salary you were on. 

At that time inflation was running ridiculously high, our members were really feeling the impact of “Trussonomics” on their mortgages, and they were also struggling with the increase in energy bills. So, the offer was nowhere near good enough. 

We raised concerns that this wasn’t a real negotiation process – we were just being given a final deal with no genuine two-way conversation. 

We had a few more meetings but all we got was a repeat of the ‘final offer’.” 

Declaring a dispute 

Cath continued: “There were three unions involved in the negotiations. We all felt we had no choice but to declare a dispute, primarily on the basis that this wasn’t a negotiation. 


And of course, the pay offer was significantly below what we were asking for and wasn’t sufficient to meet the needs of our members. 

Unfortunately declaring a dispute still didn’t shift anything. So, our NEC decided to take it to ballot. 

The next step was an indicative ballot of our members. This revealed that, while we wouldn’t reach the required turnout, people were willing to take industrial action over pay. 

The TUC Solidarity Hub 

Cath said: “We took the risk and went to a formal ballot in July. We disaggregated our ballot based on the lack of turnout in our indicative ballot. And we sought support from various places – including the TUC’s Solidarity Hub. 

The Solidarity Hub really helped us with the peer-to-peer messaging side of things. We recommended to members to vote for industrial action. But our biggest concern was that we wouldn’t meet the required thresholds. 

I did some of the texting myself – which was quite bizarre because I’d be texting people who knew me and they were replying “oh Hi Cath, how are you?”. 

But we got a good indication of the support for our campaign – people messaging back that yes, they had voted. That was really uplifting and pleasing.” 

Texting campaign 

Cath continued: “The texting made a significant difference to the turnout. It was a game changer really. We got an amazing result! 

Members in 86.6% of our local authorities met the participation threshold for the ballot and voted in favour of industrial action – but we had 100% in 33 local authorities. And it was a resounding yes vote of 86%. 

The texting campaign was accompanied by a social media drive, and we held local reps briefings to galvanise our local reps as they were such a crucial part of this. 

The employer called the three unions into a meeting before the results were announced, it was about two days before the ballot closed. 

We then got a great offer – we were really pleased with what was put on the table. 

But then the offer was withdrawn. This was a real low point in the campaign. We felt this was an act of bad faith, so the NEC said – right, we’ve got the mandate, we are calling our members out on strike and action short of strike.” 

Strike action 

Cath told the TUC: “We started a rolling period of action short of strike and we had one strike day. The action short of strike had an impact, as just before our first strike day we were called back into the office again. 

The local government association – who nominates members to negotiate on behalf of the National Employers (local authorities) – told us there were some parts of our original ask that they just couldn’t shift on. But they gave us an improved offer. 

We were striking about the 2022 offer, but they put on the table a 2023 offer as well. They offered us the same for 2022 but an improved offer of 4% for all pay points for 2023. 

We put it to members, and they accepted it with an 85.5% yes vote. And they’ll get their back pay this month (January). It is bittersweet because it will be a nice New Year’s present – but the reality is that as the cost-of-living crisis continues, members have still lost real pay.” 

Going forward

Cath is looking forward to the year ahead. She said: “We are now thinking about how we approach our 2024 pay claim. 

Talks will start again in September, but we have already initiated conversations about other issues and this time we can use some of the campaigning techniques that we learned through the industrial action period. 

We want to do some campaigning around central government funding local government better, because in essence that’s why our members aren’t being paid properly. 

In the last quarter of 2023 we had a spike in membership which is great. Our local reps were really key in this, so we are looking to boost our local activist base.  

And we are hopeful we can have more genuine negotiations in future.” 

Learnings from the campaign 

Cath said the AEP learned a lot during this campaign, especially around the most up-to-date ways of reaching members. She also valued the support from other unions and the TUC’s Solidarity Hub. 

Cath said: “We are a very small union – we reached out to ask for help and we got help. This was the first time we’d had to ballot after the 2016 Trade Union Act. So, we asked for help from all and sundry! 

My advice would be to use the Solidarity Hub. And to work with other unions. Unions all benefit from sticking together – even something small like another union tweeting about you is a real boost and shows our solidarity, support and inter-connectedness.” 

Read a couple of testimonies about when educational psychologists felt they had no choice but to vote for industrial action.

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