Socialist Worker

Durham County Council climbs down over teaching assistant contracts—but threat of sack not withdrawn

by Raymie Kiernan
Issue No. 2532

TAs protest during their second 48-hour strike last week--their signs show how much they stand to lose per year from Labours proposed pay cut thats still not off the table

TAs protest during their second 48-hour strike last week--their signs show how much they stand to lose per year from Labour's proposed pay cut that's still not off the table (Pic: Socialist Worker)


Durham County Council announced on Wednesday of this week it will not fire around 2,000 teaching assistants on 31 December and rehire them on worse contracts the next day.

But it has not withdrawn the threat to sack the TAs—and key issues over pay and hours that are at the heart of the dispute have not been addressed.

In a letter to the Unison union the council agreed to “suspend” the redundancy notices it issued in October. These would have forced teaching assistants (TAs) to take a 23 percent pay cut—or leave the job they love.

The council also committed to “undertake a review” of teaching assistants’ jobs, by 1 September 2017.

The climbdown is a sign that strikes by the TAs had put the council under pressure. It should have spurred Unison, which represents the vast majority of TAs, on to win.

Unfortunately Unison “decided this was enough to call off the strikes” planned for Thursday and a further three days next week. However, in a sign that angry members may have again put the union office under siege, the union changed its press release.

It now says, “A decision will be taken about the strikes planned for next Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday following talks with the council.” Talks are set for Friday.

The TAs’ determined resistance and solid four days’ of strikes forced Labour Party members locally—after a year—to finally oppose the Labour council’s attack.

But it was industrial action, not Labour Party motions, that forced this climbdown from the council.

Trish, a Durham TA, told Socialist Worker, “I'm not happy at all.” She said the wording in the council's statement was “totally different” to what union stewards were told it would be.

She added, “There’s also no mention of the unwanted extra hours or keeping the same pay.”

Crucial

These are crucial details and underline why TAs must have a say in decisions to call off strikes at such a crucial moment in the dispute.

Union officials’ pay is unaffected by whatever deal they strike so the members should get to call the shots.

“Unison said there would be no negotiations without withdrawing the threat to sack,” Lisa, another TA, told Socialist Worker.

“The only way I would have agreed with suspending the strikes was if they lifted this threat. I don't think the council has given us anything.

“We need to gauge the mood of the grassroots TAs and ask what they want. We need to meet and discuss this—we need to hear the voices of the people who work in schools.”

The only thing that has been won is that TAs won’t be sacked on New Year’s Eve. There are no guarantees over pay.

And there are no guarantees that TAs won’t still face the same sign or be sacked ultimatum after 1 September.

Unison was wrong to call off the strikes, especially without consulting its members first.

Councillors have had a long time to look into alternatives, as have union officials, so why should this be dragged out for nine months?

One answer is that it can defuse the revolt—which has spread across County Durham and garnered huge public support—in time for the county council elections in May.

Trish wants “to carry on with action” until she gets a concrete offer “in black and white through my door”. She’s right.

Unison regional secretary Clare Williams is “hoping” councillors will now “act in good faith”. After what they have tried to do to TAs’ pay this is, at best, a naïve point of view.

When Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said the council had to “get round the negotiating table with a proper offer” surely this is not what he meant.

Lisa said, “This has taken over our lives for thirteen months and we haven't come this far to not get this threat of the sack withdrawn.

“I think we should strike next week because we still have a dispute—we should be out until they remove that word 'suspend' and replace it with 'withdraw'.


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