A rally at the end of a protest of 1,000 Durham teaching assistants (TAs) and their supporters yesterday, Saturday, ended with a threat of “payback” to 57 Labour councillors who voted to attack the workers’ pay.
Two Labour councillors stormed out at that point with one shouting, “Who else are you going to vote for?”
The Labour-run county council fears a backlash in elections on 4 May over its attempt to sack and rehire 2,700 TAs and slash their pay by 23 percent.
Local trade unionists on the march were joined by others from the region and delegations from as far away as London. Unions present included Unison, NUT, RMT, Unite and ATL.
Their terrific show of solidarity boosted TAs’ resolve to keep up the fight.
The TAs’ battle last year saw a string of big protests.
Unison officials were forced by pressure from the TAs to concede a ballot for strikes, and this led to four solid days of walkouts.
On one strike day over half of the 2,000 TAs were actively involved in picketing, protesting and campaigning on the streets. The fight has not been led by union officials—the County Durham Teaching Assistants Action Committee was the real driving force.
The TAs’ collective organisation won widespread support from other trade unionists.
The scale of the resistance meant that the council’s threat to sack the TAs was suspended, but not removed, last November for fresh negotiations. But the strikes were also suspended, and calling off the action gave the council a breathing space.
Four months on the threat of pay cuts is still hanging over the TAs.
“We’ve been shafted by Durham County Council,” said TA Amanda. She said that TAs’ lives “are on hold” and have been for 18 months. Catherine was feeling “deflated and unmotivated because of the length of time it’s taken to sort this”.
Council leader Simon Henig claimed this week that a deal was “extremely close”, which would bring a “sea change” in attitudes. But his announcement was rightly viewed with suspicion.
Sue said he was trying to “drag things out until after the elections”. She added, “We need to get out there and get back in the public eye.” Press reporting of Henig’s statement will only feed the public perception that the TAs’ dispute is over.
The best way of countering this, Sue thought, was “when we are standing outside our schools (on picket lines) – that’s when people know it’s not sorted”.
“I’d be out on strike on Monday, if they called it,” said Amanda. “We need something concrete. We want the threat of the sack withdrawn, not suspended. We only want what we signed up for not to lose £5,000 a year.”
TAs were told by the majority Unison union that if there was no “demonstrable progress” by Easter they would strike again. Amanda argued the union now has to “follow up” on this pledge and “get us out again”.
One leading TA told the rally, “We are not going away, they’re not going to defeat us. We’re going to win.”
Walkouts as soon as possible is the way to make that a reality by combining the industrial strength of the TAs with serious political pressure on councillors.
Labour’s leaders must also be pressured to tell the Durham councillors to stop the attacks on low-paid workers.
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