Socialist Worker

Brighton: a test case for school assistants

by Anindya Bhattacharyya
Issue No. 1932

LOW PAID teaching assistants in Brighton and Hove held a lively one-day strike on Friday of last week.

Some 40 schools were shut, with more workers coming out than on the previous two-day strike on 25 and 26 November.

Following a rally at Brighton town hall, the teaching assistants marched to council offices in Hove, chanting, blowing whistles and banging tambourines.

“We work hard, we love our kids, we do everything for them—so we should fight hard, because we’re worth it,” said one striker to cheers from her colleagues.

The teaching assistants enjoy a great deal of public support in Brighton and Hove, with one local newspaper phone-in reporting over 90 percent in favour of their action.

The strike was called by the Unison and GMB unions in protest at a decision by Brighton and Hove council to cut the number of weeks teaching assistants are paid. The result of that cut is to cancel out a pay rise promised to teaching assistants after a regrading exercise held in April this year.

Carol Grimstead, who has worked as a teaching assistant for over 20 years, says the council’s action was the last straw for the low paid, mainly female workforce.

She said, “We all feel undervalued. The council thinks we’re just a ‘mums’ army’. But we’re professional people—and we’re going to win.”

At the heart of the Brighton teaching assistants dispute lies New Labour’s wide ranging scheme for “remodelling the workforce” in schools.

The national remodelling agreement held out the promise of decent pay, professional recognition and a career structure for teaching assistants. But details of the programme’s implementation are being left to local authorities.

The result is that many authorities are refusing to commit extra money for remodelling and are clawing back wage rises for teaching assistants through other means.

“Similar issues are happening everywhere—Brighton and Hove is in the front line,” says Jon Rogers, branch secretary of Lambeth Unison and left candidate for Unison general secretary.

“We’d like to see a national claim, a national dispute and potentially a national strike.”

Learning support assistants at Charlton school, a special needs school in south east London, could strike over a similar issue in the new year.

Mark Turner, GMB branch secretary for Brighton and Hove council, says, “The issue is bubbling up now, but this is the first group of teaching assistants who have said enough is enough.”

Brighton and Hove council has reacted to the strike by digging its heels in, insulting the strikers and refusing offers of binding arbitration.

Council executives have sent out letters to heads of schools threatening to withdraw financial support if they try to reach a local settlement with their teaching assistants.

But over 400 teaching assistants have joined a union since the action began.

The next day of strike action is scheduled for 6 January, the first full day of term. GMB officials are now consulting on whether to extend the strike to other workers across the council.

Jon Rogers has received a total of 47 nominations for the post of Unison general secretary from a variety of union branches.

The nominations, including one from London Region, place Jon as a serious challenger to Dave Prentis, Unison’s current general secretary.

Jon will be formally launching his campaign for general secretary on 15 January next year. Ballot papers will be sent out on 25 January, with voting closing at the end of February.

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Sat 18 Dec 2004, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1932
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