On Saturday 15th October, between 80-100 teaching assistants (TAs), along with their friends, family and supporters, were mobilised to take part in a demonstration on Framwellgate Bridge in Durham city centre against proposed cuts of up to 23% of their pay.
Despite the cuts having been announced last winter, the union leadership have done nothing and have only been pushed now - two months before redundancies take place - into organising a ballot for strike action. The Durham Lions, as the TAs have been named, have refused to back down and, in spite of all of the obstacles thrown in their path, have built a solid campaign of support pushing their leadership into action.
Durham and Newcastle Marxist Societies have been discussing this dispute since the beginning of the university terms. We had organised it so that a number of us were able to go down to the demonstration on Saturday to speak with the TAs, handout leaflets, learn from their struggle and show our solidarity in person. We received a very friendly reception from workers happy to see our support and serious in their willingness to fight this out until the end.
Some of us got the train through from Newcastle to attend; and, whilst it was cold and wet, there was already a handful of people assembled on the bridge at 10.45am when we arrived, before the demo. It didn’t take long for more to arrive, including comrades from Durham Marxist Society, until the group swelled to up to 100 people.
Management demanding more for less
On the day we spoke with several teaching assistants, all with their own stories to tell. When we first got there we spoke with one TA who was telling of her experiences of having worked in the profession for nearly 14 years and all of the changes that have come about in that time. She explained that they had been expected to take on more and more of a role in the direct teaching of students. With the increase of paperwork being put on teachers, there are less resources to go around and workers in the classroom are fighting an uphill struggle.
On top of this it is expected that each and every teacher and teaching assistant must give up their time in order to run or be involved in at least one after school club. They are also made to attend staff meetings that are arranged outside of their regular working hours. Each and every week staff are forced to work unpaid overtime. All of these pressures are mounting up, and the proposed cut in pay further emphasises how these workers are being expected to do more work for even less in return.
This is not a profession that someone gets into purely for monetary gain, but rather because they love to work with children and want to help teach and develop and support them. It is hard work, but work that is valuable and should be treated as such by employers and society as a whole.
One TA who has written for the Guardian has said:
“I manage on my wage without living an extravagant lifestyle because I love the job I do and the children I work with. From educator, to support, to cleaner, to cook, to confidante, social worker and many more; my job is more than just washing paint pots and sharpening pencils.”
And, further to emphasize the impact on their pay and living conditions:
“It saddens me to think that due to these decisions I could be forced out of a job that I absolutely adore and have done for the past 13 years in the same school – forced out due to the fact that the proposal would leave me desperately short on my monthly bills and I would have to seek alternative employment to survive. No one, in my eyes, can live off a salary for 13 years and then take a 23% pay cut when they are already very poorly paid.”
The mood on Saturday’s demonstration was upbeat and defiant.
In speaking to one TA, who had been in the profession for over a decade, we were really enthused by their passion and militancy as she explained how a one-day strike was not enough. She explained that by simply holding a single day of strike action the management would be able to wait and hold out until the TA’s lost their energy to fight. With an all-out strike this would not be so easy. By not returning to work until the dispute was settled it would force management and Durham County Council to the table to genuinely look at finding a solution to the issue.
Such action would not be taken lightly and, coming from the TAs, would no doubt be a last resort. But the current state of the economy and of public finance is such that only militant action has any chance of even halting such attacks.
2,700 teaching assistants across County Durham will be affected if Durham County Council’s plans are allowed to go through. At the end of the current terms TAs are being made redundant and asked to reapply for their own jobs. If they are hired, it will be on the new worse terms that would impact their wages by 23%, or up to £5,000 a year. The only concession on offer so far from Durham County Council is a smaller decrease in pay of “only” 10% to those who are willing to accept the new contract.
Attacks on the reforms of the past
The results of the TAs strike ballot should be announced shortly and, as is expected, if it comes back in favour of strike action then Durham Marxist Society will be organising to join them on the picket lines. We have invited one of the TAs to come to speak at our meeting this Thursday, to explain in their own words what has been happening and how students can support them, and we will also be planning to hold a collection for their strike fund as well.
The struggle of the Durham TAs is one symptom amongst many of a system in terminal decline. From the junior doctors dispute, cuts to local government, and privatisation of the welfare state to attacks on the wider working class, it is clear that capitalism can no longer afford the reforms of the past.
The TAs have led a heroic struggle, organising themselves and fighting back to defend their living standards against cuts of up to 23% in pay, and Durham Marxist Society were proud to stand side by side with these workers as part of their struggle. They are showing the militant action that will be needed to halt these attacks and to go even further in fighting for a society where working people get to enjoy all of the wealth that they produce. Only on the basis of socialism is that possible, and students have a big part to play, alongside the working class, in fighting for such an alternative.