When Durham County Council announced a huge pay attack on teaching assistants, it probably didn’t expect to meet much resistance. Officials in the workers’ Unison union probably didn’t expect too much trouble either.
Instead, the move provoked a rank and file rebellion that has spread right across the county. The dispute has become a serious thorn in the side of the Labour-led council—and the Unison officials.
Durham County Council plans to sack all 2,700 of its teaching assistants by 31 December and rehire them on worse contracts that mean less money for more hours. This 23 percent pay cut is life-changing, as workers told Socialist Worker at a hundreds-strong rally last week.
“There are people losing nearly £5,000,” said Sam, a teaching assistant (TA) of around 30 years. “One TA sold her house in a panic and has moved back to her parents.
“Another remortgaged her house. She was struggling as it was but it won’t be until she’s 75 that she’s mortgage free because of the pay cut. She’s due to retire at 67. What’s she going to do for the next eight years?”
These are only two of the heartbreaking stories that are a result of Durham Labour councillors’ implementation of Tory spending cuts. Labour has 96 of the council’s 126 seats.
Jane Brown, Durham County Council’s cabinet member for corporate services, insists it’s not about spending cuts. She said it was with “a heavy heart” that councillors voted in May to sack the TAs.
Continuing to employ TAs on 52-week contracts, when they only work during term time, was “inequality”, Brown said, and poses “financial risks of equal pay claims”. The contracts will bring “fairness and parity” so that TAs “are paid only for the hours they actually work”.
Leave aside the fact that councillors get a £13,300 allowance, for which some attend two meetings a month on average. And leave aside Brown’s extra £13,300 cabinet member allowance and, until recently, such perks as an £8,850 clothing allowance.
Her justification smacks of little understanding of the reality of workloads in schools.
“If they actually paid us for the hours that we work we’d be a damn sight richer,” said Sam. “TAs used to work hours and hours above their contract. It was just the done thing. Working an extra two hours a day was the norm.”
A common perception is that some officials have too cosy a relationship with County Hall. They have called no protests and have effectively blocked industrial action.
Sam said all that goodwill is gone since the council went on the attack. Now many of them are not prepared to work beyond their contract and want to organise a broader boycott of extra hours.
TA Agnesa told Socialist Worker that council chiefs weren’t being honest. She said, “When they say they are ‘bringing us into line with the rest of the country’ they are only bringing us into line with the way that we’re paid, not the amount that we’re paid.”
“If they regraded us in line with other councils and moved to term time only contracts we’d stay on similar pay to now. They keep telling us it’s not about saving money so why don’t they do that?”
Sam added, “The pay scale for my job in Durham is £15-19,000 a year. The same job in Newcastle is £22-25,000 a year for term time only. If they had regraded us to the same scale we wouldn’t really have been bothered. But this is an insult.”
Even though the council is saying the over £4 million it will save is staying within school budgets there are no guarantees after this year that it won’t cut school budgets in subsequent years.
There are fears that this is the beginning of a wave of attacks.
But TAs are determined to resist. Agnesa said, “I think they thought ‘these women will just accept it’ and that we’re just doing it for a bit of pin money but it’s not like that—it’s a profession.”
Lisa, another TA, added, “We don’t just wash paint pots—we’re all highly skilled. People have had enough of putting up with things for an easy life and are standing up for themselves.
“If you think you’re going to lose your house and you can’t feed your kids, you realise that you’ve got to fight. I want to be able to look my daughter in the eye and say I fought.
“They say it’s not a cut—but it’s a cut for us. And it’s a bigger cut if you are not offered additional hours or you can’t do the additional hours, so where’s the equality in that?”
She added, “One thing we’ve realised by coming together is how unequal it is across Durham. That’s why we’re pushing for a collective county-wide regrade.”
The TAs’ dispute has widespread support—and seen a high level of participation among the rank and file. TAs have filled the Durham Miners Hall twice in the past three months with 350-400-strong rallies.
The vast majority of them are Unison members, some are in the GMB or ATL unions, while only around 300 are not in a union. The potential for a union-led fightback is enormous.
But Agnesa said, “Many TAs feel that Unison hasn’t really put up much of a fight.”
A common perception is that some officials have too cosy a relationship with County Hall. They have called no protests and have effectively blocked industrial action. And they haven’t even spoken at the TA solidarity rallies, despite invitations.
TAs rejected the council’s new contract by 95 percent six months ago. Four months ago councillors voted to implement it anyway.
Helen Metcalf, Unison’s regional organiser, said there was “no option but to lodge a formal dispute and ballot our members for industrial action”. Unison members are still waiting for that strike ballot.
Another consultation, this time on the council’s offer of two years’ “compensation”, ends on 27 September. Metcalf is now quoted in the local press saying how “pleased” she was with the council’s “much improved” offer.
When this was mentioned at last week’s solidarity rally TAs booed.
Agnesa said she hasn’t met “a single TA that’s pleased with the offer”. She added, “I would like to ask her if she would be pleased if it was her pay being cut—I suspect probably not.”
How Durham Unison officials could put the current offer out for consultation beggars belief. It’s true they haven’t helped to organise the county-wide opposition to the council full time officials. But they should at least be able to notice a big minority of TAs are angry enough to mobilise.
Why has Durham Unison allowed relations with its members to sour so badly? Why has it blocked activist TAs from becoming stewards for months now?
And why did Unison officials tell the TAs in August that they knew nothing about the council’s plans—despite the fact they had already negotiated the latest offer with the council during talks in July?
One TA wrote to Unison general secretary Dave Prentis to say she “doesn’t have a lot of faith in the local representation”. He had previously promised to intervene personally. But the fact he got regional secretary Claire Williams to respond to the letter left the TA “very disappointed”.
It’s changed me and made me much stronger, more bolshie and much more confident. Three months ago there is no way I would have contemplated standing in front of a hall full of people to speak.TA Agnesa
Prentis should put his words into action. And Williams should pull her finger out before TAs start leaving her Durham branch in droves. Despite itself, Unison in Durham has seen an active and mobilised membership develop in the last six months.
Rank and file TAs have created a network spanning over 200 of Durham’s 270 schools. They organise between schools and produce regular bulletins.
“Our strategy is to not just be victims and accept these pay cuts,” Agnesa said. “We can reject this offer and vote for industrial action—it’s the only choice we’ve got.
“We’re not just fighting for ourselves, we’re fighting for the future of the schools and our profession.”
Sadly they feel like they are battling their union as well as the council.
“I never thought I’d have to fight like this for a job I’ve done for 26 years,” Lisa said.
“None of us had met each other before last November when this started but I don’t speak to anyone else at the minute. We speak all night, every night planning, coordinating, emailing and messaging. It’s such a strong bond we’ve got now.”
Agnesa agreed, “It’s changed me and made me much stronger, more bolshie and much more confident. Three months ago there is no way I would have contemplated standing in front of a hall full of people to speak.”
Anger, passion and determination have helped her get past that.
This struggle has changed the lives of all of the TAs on the rank and file committee. Lisa said, “I go to scooter rallies and Mod events but I don’t really talk about scooters any more—it’s all about equality impact statuses and protests and solidarity. It’s massive change.
“I’ve never been a political person. I’ve always voted Labour because that’s what you do. My dad was a shop steward for years and I’ve grown up on everything to do with the miners.
“The way I see it is that it’s ‘the big people’ taking from what they think is ‘the little people’ and that’s not fair.”
If lifelong supporters think this way about the party that is supposed to be on the side of ordinary working class people then Labour has problems in the north east. It only needs to look north of the border for a vision of a possible future if it continues to drive through austerity.
Dozens of its councillors didn’t have the bottle to show up and vote or criticise the cut, though some local Labour MPs have spoken out.
Leader Jeremy Corbyn spoke in support of the TAs at this year’s Gala. But Sam—a “swinging voter”—said, “Jeremy Corbyn offered support but claims this is a result of austerity cuts by the Tories while Durham council claims that it is nothing to do with austerity.”
Lisa thought the message behind Corbyn’s Gala speech was “excellent”. But she said, “I still can’t quite grasp how, when you’ve got the Labour leader saying ‘get this sorted’ and we all live in a Labour-run council, it still hasn’t been sorted.
“We’re real people with real lives facing real losses. The people in the high towers don’t know who’s going to lose their house, who can’t feed their kids, who’s had to leave the job. We need more of a voice in this.
“I’ve always said that I wouldn’t slag the council off. But what I will say is that I’m 45, I’ve voted Labour all my life, as has my dad, grandparents, everybody and I will never vote a Labour council in Durham ever again. If this is us now, then who are they going to pick off next?”