Around 1000 school secretaries are expected to hold three one-day stoppages and possible indefinite strike action before Christmas in a long-running dispute over low pay and insecure employment.

At Workplace Relations Commission talks today, which failed to resolve the dispute, Fórsa informed the Department of Education and Skills that the three stoppages on successive Fridays in October will be followed by an indefinite strike in November if the row is not resolved.

However, formal strike notice is unlikely to be served until next week.

The 10-year dispute centres on the two-tier system for school secretaries, whereby those employed by Educational Training Board have the pay, pensions and job security of public servants.

However, around 2000 workers employed directly by the individual board of management of a school say they have low pay, no sick pay, increments, security of tenure or pension contributions, and frequently have to sign on for social welfare over the summer.

Fórsa represents over half of the 2000 school secretaries seeking pay parity with their better paid colleagues in ETBs.

The union's Education official Andy Pike confirmed that members already have a valid mandate for strike action, which led to a one day stoppage last January before the pandemic closed schools.

The union is currently "surveying" members to see if they are prepared to apply that mandate, with the result of that survey due on Monday.

However, Mr. Pike said 80% of those who have responded so far have backed strike action, including an indefinite strike. 

The Department of Education has previously warned that granting pay parity including pensions for the secretaries would have very significant implications for the exchequer.

In a letter to Fórsa issued last week, Education Minister Norma Foley said the full year cost of the union's claim for school secretaries and caretakers at the top of their pay scale and working full-time would be about €50 million a year - with a further "substantial cost" if pension parity were introduced.

Fórsa disputes this calculation, citing estimates putting the cost of moving to public service pay scales at around €5 million.

The Minister also queried whether conceding the secretaries' demands could trigger knock-on claims from employees of state-funded organisations in other areas.

She told the union that she was putting in place special arrangements for this year involving funding for replacement secretaries or caretakers if those at high risk from coronavirus could not work from school, and access for all school staff to the Employment Assistance Scheme.

Sinn Féin spokesperson on Education Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire urged Education Minister Norma Foley to bring the Department back to the negotiating table for real and meaningful negotiations.

He described the long-running dispute as "particularly regrettable given that the Green Party and Fianna Fáil manifestos had commited to resolving the issue."

Mr. O Laoghaire noted that school secretaries had played a crucial role in reopening schools and keeping them safe, and accused the Department of Education of being unwilling to tackle the major issues facing the staff.

The Department of Education described Fórsa's statement that it is considering strike action as "regettable in the current circumstances". 

It warned any such action would impact on the day-to-day operation of schools at this most critical time and could further disrupt tuition for students who have only recently returned to school after a 6 month gap.

In a statement to RTÉ, the Department said Minister Norma Foley was keenly aware of the vital role played by school secretaries within school communities. 

It said "significant" improvements to the pay of secretaries and caretakers have been made since 2015 under a pay arbitration agreement.

It noted that agreement had provided for a cumulative pay increase of 10% between 2016 and 2019 for staff and that a minimum hourly pay rate of €13 be phased in over that period.

The Department said a survey it conducted last year found that the average hourly rate paid to a school secretary is €15.49, which is in line with the hourly rate for a Grade 3 Clerical Officer.

Officials from the Department of Education, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and School Management Bodies met with Fórsa today under the auspices of the Workplace Relations Commission in relation to claims on behalf of school secretaries and caretakers.

The Department said that an offer of a pay increase had been made to Fórsa at today's meeting at the WRC, attended by officials from the Departments of Education and Public Expenditure and Reform, as well as the school management bodies. 

However, Fórsa had deemed it unacceptable, and requested that the claims be referred to the Labour Court. 

However, the Department warned any such referral could create technical issues - as neither the government departments nor the school management bodies are the actual employers of the staff in question. 
 
"The Department is considering those issues in conjunction with DPER and will reply to the request shortly," it said. 

It also noted that until that request for the Labour Court referral is replied to, the WRC process remains ongoing.