Socialist Worker

'We won't be bullied'—meet the women standing up to Labour in County Durham

County Durham teaching assistants are battling against the odds—and pushing their union officials—to take the fight to a Labour council trying to slash their pay. Raymie Kiernan spoke to the women leading the fight

Issue No. 2532

Durham TAs demand that the council regrades them all instead of slashing their pay

Durham TAs demand that the council regrades them all instead of slashing their pay (Pic: Perri Newton)


"Durham County Council is the most underhanded pack of bastards you’ll ever meet in a day’s march—and I fully support what you are doing.”

That was one man’s simple message to striking teaching assistants (TAs), who were protesting in Consett, County Durham, on Wednesday of last week.

This Labour council is preparing to sack around 2,000 TAs on 31 December—and rehire them on up to 23 percent less pay.

But council bosses underestimated the resolve of the low paid and undervalued, predominantly women workers. As TA Helen told Socialist Worker, “They thought we were a soft target, but I couldn’t look my children in the eye if I didn’t fight.”

She added, “It’s been a revelation for me. I’ve learned that what you read in the press or see on the telly is not necessarily true—it’s just one side of the story.”

Alison, another TA in Consett, said, “I didn’t think in a million years that I’d be on a picket line or demonstrating.

“But I couldn’t believe that a Labour council, that’s supposed to be fighting for the people, was doing this and claiming that it’s about equality and fairness.

“It’s not fair, it’s not right and it’s not equal—but we’ve come together and we’re stronger for that.”

Fighting back has given the TAs confidence in their own power. Helen said, “I tend to stay away from confrontation.

“But when you’re with a big group and you know that people are backing you it feels fantastic—it lifts your spirits.”

Many who had never been active before have spoken at some of the countless trade union and campaign meetings to build solidarity.

TA Jan told Socialist Worker, “I like to think I’m the quiet one on the committee. I’ve found speaking at meetings absolutely nerve racking but it’s built my confidence.”

The council insists its plans are in the interests of “equal pay”.

Alison and Helen have drawn strength from the collective—they’re not giving up

Alison and Helen have drawn strength from the collective—they’re not giving up (Pic: Socialist Worker)


Ludicrous

But Alison said bosses’ claim that TAs are paid for hours they don’t work and get too many holidays is “ludicrous”. “I’m not aware of anybody else in Durham County Council that does a job on a par with what we do,” she said.

“We’re not the same as other council workers—we don’t have the same rights to take holidays when we want or to work flexi time.”

Alison and Helen’s determination gives a taste of the rank and file revolt that’s taking place across the county. Well over half of the 2,000 striking TAs were actively involved in last week’s two-day walkout—picketing, protesting and campaigning on the streets.

But this fight is not led by union officials—the County Durham Teaching Assistants Action Committee is the real driving force.

It started with a Facebook page just over 12 months ago when one TA decided to do something. Now there’s the “Twitterati”— the TAs’ social media team—and even a “meme queen”. Others organise TAs who are willing to speak to newspapers, and on the radio and TV.

There are people making hats, badges, leaflets and car stickers for the TAs’ Value Us campaign.

It’s not fair, it’s not right and it’s not equal. But we’ve come together and we’re stronger for that—Alison, a Consett TA

Anne, a rank and file committee member, told Socialist Worker, “The committee evolved from two people talking. Then it was three people, then four people talking and meeting and it’s just got bigger and stronger and more confident to where we are now.”

Someone on the Facebook group suggested there should be a meet up for all TAs, regardless of which union they were in. This was after the unions had organised some meetings which left many feeling like the officials had given up without a fight.

The first rank and file gathering was at Sacriston Cricket Club in March. “There were about 100 people there but nobody knew who was going to run the meeting,” explained Anne.

“I had some big bits of paper and pens. We put them out on the table and wrote out our concerns and worries and the actions we could take.”

From there the Facebook page took on a life of its own. It became a vital tool for TAs, who often work in small numbers across 270 county schools, to talk and get organised.

Durham trades council activists then got involved and attended the next meeting.

Anne said, We are the union—each and every TA is the union. We are going to win.

Anne said, "We are the union—each and every TA is the union. We are going to win." (Pic: Socialist Worker)


Targeted

The late Durham miners’ leader Davey Hopper met the TAs around that time. Anne said, “Davey was targeted by councillors and various people asking, ‘Why are you getting involved?’ We were organising our first big rally at the miners’ hall.

“He told us he’d had union people on the phone and everyone was trying to stop it from happening.

“But it went ahead and was really quite successful. It was then we decided that we really needed to set up a proper committee.”

That committee has mobilised hundreds of TAs for protests at Durham County Hall and indoor rallies. These have built a firm belief that the council can be beaten—it has also forced union officials to organise ballots and call strikes.

Kate, another committee member, said, “We never wanted to be fighting against the union leaders. But it took them so long to get their act together—we could have been striking a long time ago instead of it taking a year.”

Anne said there was a post in the online group one day that summed it all up. It simply said, “I trust the committee before I trust my union.”

It’s the rank and file leaders, who before this had no experience of trade union organising, who have credibility among members.

The committee members are inundated with messages every night because TAs look to them. It’s a testament to their fighting spirit.

The TAs’ revolt has also split the Labour Party, with many party members supporting the strikers rather than the councillors.

Three Constituency Labour Party (CLP) meetings in the North East of England voted unanimously against the council’s attack last weekend.

I found speaking at public meetings was absolutely nerve-racking, but it built confidence—Jan, TA committee member

The TAs’ campaign has blown apart the cosy relationships at County Hall between councillors and union officers. Anne said, “We haven’t got on board with them, they’ve got on board with us.

“But as long as they do what they’ve promised, we’ll work with them and have their banners and all the rest of it.

“We are the union—each and every TA is the union. The TAs are looking to our committee, but there has to be a balance because we have to work with our union. The union has the negotiating power.”

The pressure that the rank and file is able to exert was clear last week.

Unison branch officials were dragging their feet over announcing dates for the next walkouts. The minority union fighting the contracts, ATL, did announce a strike.

Anger was growing on the first day of the 48-hour strike, not only because the officials were too slow but because the unions weren’t working together.

Anne said, “The message had spread that Unison wasn’t striking, but people want to strike the week after and the week after that right up until Christmas.”

The life-changing pay cuts will mean losing thousands of pounds a year but TAs are standing up to Labour council chiefs

The life-changing pay cuts will mean losing thousands of pounds a year but TAs are standing up to Labour council chiefs (Pic: Perri Newton)


Jammed

The phone lines at Unison’s office were jammed as TAs bombarded it with calls demanding more strike dates. By the end of the day Unison had announced a one-day strike this Thursday to be followed by a three-day strike starting next Tuesday.

Jan told Socialist Worker, “I think the TAs and the committee have been instrumental in getting the ATL and Unison to work together.

“That’s the whole point of solidarity. This fight is the TAs against the council, not the unions against each other.”

She added, “The strikes are growing stronger because people are not afraid now to come out and picket—they’re growing in confidence.

“I’d like everyone to know that all the solidarity we’re getting is having a massive impact on the TAs and is buoying people up.

“It’s very nerve-racking but it also makes you very proud. All of the TAs—they’re making history together.”

Kate explained what is driving the revolt. “We’re committed to the children,” she said.

“We’re committed to these little people that we want to help grow into fully rounded adults.”

TAs don’t do their job for the money. But many fear they won’t be able to afford to continue in their profession if the council slashes their pay by a quarter on 1 January.

Now with two strikes under their belt, and public support going through the roof, TAs have the bit between their teeth.

When 700 TAs marched in this year’s Durham Miners’ Gala parade, one of the trade union movement’s biggest events, it was a major turning point for them.

Anne said, “At Davey Hopper’s funeral someone said to me, ‘You’re making history—it’s a political change you’re making.’ It was a bit scary—it struck me then this was big. But I always say feel the fear and do it anyway. And it’s only got bigger.

“We’re going to win. They can’t keep ignoring this amount of people. The longer it goes on and the closer it gets to May’s council elections, the more uncomfortable they’re going to get.”

Anne thinks the action in the final week of term should be “all out all week”.

Durham TAs are making history but not in circumstances of their choosing. It would be difficult to meet a more determined group of workers.

Every trade union activist must build solidarity and help the TAs defeat this rotten Labour council’s callous attack on their pay.

Send the TAs a solidarity message through the rank and file committee, request a speaker to address your union branch and find out how to donate to the strike fund spartacusannie@gmail.com

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