Durham Teaching Assistants fight on - against Labour and their unions

Durham Teaching Assistants have remained solid in their resistance to the threats and deals done behind closed doors between the unions and the Labour Council. The fight goes on.

Submitted by Internationali… on July 29, 2017

There is much to admire in the resistance that the Teaching Assistants (TAs) of County Durham have put up over the last 20 months. Their resilience and solidarity was once again confirmed by their vote to reject the latest “offer” agreed by their unions and Durham County Council.


For those who have not been following this saga, Durham TAs 1 are already amongst the lowest paid in the UK. They were originally told in October 2015 that they were having their contracts rewritten due to “legal anomalies” which would have made the Council liable to being sued by other groups of workers. The issue is muddy but TAs salaries have always been spread out in 12 monthly instalments. Now the Council was saying that they should only be paid 39 weeks of the year as they don’t work school holidays. It is a blatant attempt at a wage cut under the guise of “making everyone equal”. In fact it is the first step on the road to making the entire status of TAs more “precarious”. One of the first thing that strikes you is that if this was a real problem why have only two local authorities (Durham and Derby – both Labour-controlled) decided on this, and not any of the others? And where are all these workers supposedly queuing up to sue councils?

Durham’s plan was basically to sack all 2,700 teaching assistants, and re-employ them from 1 January 2016 on new contracts where they would be paid only for term time, thus cutting their pay by 23%. 57 out of 94 Labour councillors voted for this dirty deal. Hand in glove with the Unison union, they did not imagine that a group of mainly female workers would not simply roll over and accept this. Not only were the TAs insulted by the total failure to recognise the contribution they made, but many were literally faced with cuts in income which would have meant that they could not have paid their mortgages or bills. They could not though have anticipated the support that they got right around the county and the country. Little wonder then that Labour went on to lose 20 seats (mainly to independent local groups) in the May council elections although they still retain complete control of Durham County Council.

The formation of the Activists Committee

And support for the TAs certainly did not come from any actions of their unions. Although the TAs are in four different unions (Unison, the ATL,2 Unite and the GMB) only Unison (to which the vast majority of Durham TAs belong) has negotiating rights with Durham County Council. Handy that, since their offices are also in County Hall! The GMB which has very few TAs accepted the contract immediately. And Unison officials basically started off by advising the TAs to accept what was happening but seek some kind of compensation package (which is what Unison “negotiated” later for Derby TAs but we’ll come to them later).

The TAs however were not satisfied with this advice. Starting on Facebook they began to contact each other and eventually set up an initial meeting in Sacriston to which about 100 turned up. With no agenda and no-one organising anything they began by articulating their resistance. More meetings were called across the county and they ended by electing a committee. It was this committee that became the County Durham Teaching Assistants Activist Committee (CDTAAC). It has enjoyed tremendous support both from the TAs and the wider working class community. Its meetings have been packed and its demonstrations supported by other workers.

It was the appearance of this committee which represented TAs in all the unions that forced Unison into some token opposition to the County Council. But it took months of effort and several demonstrations on the part of the CDTAAC to get the union to even issue a ballot for strike or other action in support of the campaign. The TAs meanwhile ignored union advice and began to withdraw “goodwill” (i.e. doing all those things that enable the school to function for which they don’t get paid). It was not a step they took lightly but as the first strikes only took place some 13 months after the Council’s threat and less than 2 months before they were all due to be sacked on 31 December 2016 they had little option left. Throughout this whole period the County Council were not slow to issue threats that if the TAs did not sign up to their proposals then they would be all sacked and re-hired on even worse conditions.3 However, early in 2016, the planned programme of strikes was called off by the unions. Some TAs told us they cried when they found out and others’ voiced criticism of the unions but no-one seems to have thought of insisting that only the Activists Committee could speak for the TAs.

Despite the threats and all the distress this caused the TAs and their families, they have remained magnificently solid in continuing their fight. All the attempts to divide them have failed. But, as we have seen above, they have been fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. By sticking to the legal forms they are allowing Unison officials to negotiate for them. They have been given the sop of supposed consultation, where one of their number took part in the discussion on re-grading, but the actual decisions about how this re-grading was to be implemented remained a matter for the union officials and the Council. The TAs thought they had persuaded the Council to take a more reasonable line only to find in June that the Council had distorted the exercise by ensuring that nearly a quarter of them would end up with a pay cut.

The Fight Goes On …

The response to the new “offer” was impressive. Unison, which had been so slow to organise any action, was now quick to organise the postal ballot so that the deal (which they recommended) could be accepted before most TAs had time to digest it, let alone discuss it. The Activists Committee pleaded with the union to call it off, but when it refused they once again set about organising themselves. Despite the lack of time they managed to hastily organise a mass meeting.

This took place on a miserable wet evening (June 27) in the Miners’ Hall at Redhills in Durham. The hall quickly filled up. It was difficult to estimate the numbers (since there were over 300 in the body of the hall but many more in the balcony above), but there were at least 400, naturally most of them women, and once it got going the atmosphere was something like you might imagine a local soviet. It was to their credit that the TAs kept the meeting open to all. The overwhelming majority there however were TAs and they were in defiant mood just waiting to applaud the TAAC’s arguments for rejecting the deal the union was presenting as a victory. (Everyone going in was handed a flyer “urging you to reject this unfair and divisive offer”.)

The meeting lasted over three hours and much time was devoted to evidence from individuals about how their own job description/actual workloads were worsening. Whilst some head teachers were sympathetic (attempting to put their TAs on the highest grade – a move blocked by council bureaucrats) it became clear that the Council and some head teachers (managing their own school budgets) are already undermining the old ‘conditions of service’ without waiting for any new contract. Typically, new TAs are being employed on different (worse) conditions than the old standard definitions. Some are already expected to teach full classes more than once a week. This would have been unheard of in the past and clearly suggests the system is getting a teacher on the cheap.

At the time we (and others who had turned up to give solidarity) thought that the ballot would be rejected outright but at the Durham Miners’ Gala on July 8 (after the ballot was closed and the result was expected the following Monday) the TAs we talked to all expressed doubts since Unison (via its reps) had pulled out all the stops in their schools to campaign for acceptance. And, of course, secret postal ballots in workers struggles were brought in specifically to undermine the solidarity that had been built up throughout the campaign. By reducing workers to individuals capitalism aims to rob them of the one weapon they have – their collective solidarity. However, to the relief of the most active TAs the union’s manoeuvre once again failed and the offer was rejected.

And so in Durham the fight goes on, unlike in Derby. Here another Labour-controlled council wanted to reduce TAs wages in the same way as Durham. The local Unison branch seems to have been more dynamic, or at least responsive to their members, and pushed Unison into agreeing to fight in a gradually escalating dispute which saw them take 73 days of “industrial action” culminating in March in an all-out strike. This forced the Council (whose majority had been reduced to one by this time) to come up with a new proposal to which the Unison negotiators agreed so that after ten months the dispute was called off on 12 April. A postal ballot in which only 38% participated voted nine to one in favour off accepting. The deal is a confusing fudge which Unison could not even explain to their members. Whilst it talks of “a flexible 52 weeks contract for school support staff” which sounds better than the 44 weeks they started off with, no-one can actually says what the real outcome will be. TAs will certainly lose money as the deal also includes a compensation clause but no TA can get more than £2750 for what they will lose (around £4000 on average) in the re-grading exercise. The Derby TAs have been sold a pig in a poke and may yet come to regret this deal. Hundreds have already left their jobs as a glance at the number of vacancies for TAs in Derby will confirm.

… But needs a new direction

In both Durham and Derby it was the rank and file both within and without the union which have pushed the struggle. But in both cases it was the union which sold them out. Talking to some of the Durham TAs Activist Committee about the failure of the union and they have the same catchphrase “We are the union”. Our response is “but the union isn’t you”. The union isn’t fighting for the interests of the TAs but for its own place in the pecking order of the capitalist state. It jealously guards its right to speak for workers to the management and in so doing polices the struggle and its outcome.

Unions today are not the same as the ones our ancestors created to resist the employers in the heyday of capitalism. Those unions were struggle organisations which used their members’ dues to build up contingency funds which were mostly used to support strike action and alleviate hardship. And they were paid out until they were exhausted and had to be rebuilt again. They certainly were not used to pay six figure salaries to General Secretaries or invested in the pension funds of the bureaucrats who ran it. This is the problem when the union becomes a permanent body – it becomes integrated into the state apparatus and, as in Durham, uses the law to ensure its position.

Often this involves getting involved in the political machinations of the Labour Movement. Unison is an enthusiastic supporter of Jeremy Corbyn since this promises to reverse the decline of union influence over the Labour Party under Blair. Corbyn at the 2016 Durham Miners Gala expressed the hope that the TAs issue could get “sorted” and Ken Loach this year, after praising the “fighting spirit” of the Durham TAs, called for “a settlement in which no-one is left behind” but that is exactly what Unison and the Labour Council have stitched up as a quarter of TAs face massive wage cuts. No wonder some TAs have said they will never vote Labour again.

The next step is obvious. If the TAs are really to push home their struggle they need to take full control over it. As the June 27 meeting showed the Activists Committee still have the confidence of the TAs and are their real representatives. Unfortunately too many of the committee are caught up in the same Labour Movement which despite support from odd individuals, is actually strangling them. One told Socialist Worker that “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 the union. The union has negotiating power.”

And we have all seen where that has led – to settlements between Unison and the Labour Council which have basically given the Council what it wanted. At the beginning the TAs might have felt intimidated. They might have felt that they had no choice but to play ball with the union-council set-up, but it is now clear (if it was not clear beforehand) that the Council only want one outcome. TAs retain the sympathy of a wide section of the working class who see their fight as symbolic of everybody’s fight. However they have put their trust too long in the weasel words coming from the Labour Movement apparatus and it is time for them to step over the line and take full control of their own struggle. This means dealing directly with the Council themselves4 which also means that the Council must understand they are dealing with ALL the TAs in any discussions with any Committee. Any proposal should go back to the meetings and not wait for the union to initiate a secret ballot. Workers elsewhere have done this with some success. Anything else just plays into the strategy of those who want to do dirty backroom deals. [Speaking of which, no-one should ever meet the employers on their own.]

But the TAs also deserve more than sympathy. They need the real solidarity of others, especially other school workers from teachers to caretakers, cleaners and office staff, who whilst often sympathetic, have largely kept their heads down. They too face a wage cap and deteriorating working conditions in an education system which is being pushed from pillar to post. A united fight of all education workers might win more than just a halt in real wage cuts. In more general terms, people in various sectors need to recognise each other and each others’ battle as the same fight against a system which is in deep economic crisis. When the fight is section by section each group of workers is always vulnerable but as part of a wider movement they can develop tremendous power once people overcome their fears and gain confidence from the struggle. The TAs have certainly shown the rest of us the way forward and it’s up to us to pick up the baton and fight more widely.

After years of working class retreat in which real median incomes have fallen 10% since 2010 (and for the bottom 20% its much higher) and in which resistance had all but ended (in 2015 a new record low of 169,000 strike days lost was reached) the TAs resistance is one more sign that the worm is beginning to turn. In 2016 despite the fact that union membership fell to a new low of 6.2 million (275,000 down on 2015) the number of strike days lost rose to 322,000, almost double the previous year. Many of these were in the private sector but the standout strike was that of the junior doctors. With more workers in precarious jobs (in the so-called gig economy and elsewhere) finding other ways to fight back the signs are that we are reaching the end of the road where enough is enough. The Teaching Assistants have had much support and not just for their own struggle but because they have raised the spirits and the hopes of many who have been downtrodden for too long. It’s a long road but as the old Chinese proverb says, it begins with a single step.

25 July 2017

  • 1Originally the Durham County Council threatened all Teaching Assistants with the new contract but the struggle at present is confined to primary, nursery and special school assistants.
  • 2Both Unison and ATL ballots rejected the new offer at the beginning of July. The 215 ATs in the ATL voted 56% to 41% for rejection (3% undecided?) on a 74% turnout.
  • 3Current adverts for new teaching assistants with Durham County Council are for “term time only” and “pro rata 39 weeks”.
  • 4This will be resisted by the Council and will have to be fought against. After the latest vote to reject the stitch-up, John Hewitt, the council's corporate director for resources, said: "We recognise the result of the Unison ballot.” But then ominously added "We will continue to work with the recognised trade unions to consider next steps and how we move forward." See County Durham Teaching Assistants reject pay deal on the BBC website July 17 2017. In other words he does not want a challenge to the cosy relationship with the union.