This week, teaching assistants involved in a dispute with the Durham County Council will be on strike for two days over the question of pay cuts. This follows on from previous days of strike action earlier this month. We publish here a report by the Durham and Newcastle Marxist societies on the inspiring struggle of the Durham TAs.
Gillian Iveson, a striking teaching assistant from County Durham, spoke at Durham Marxist society’s most recent meeting on Thursday 17th November. She gave an inspiring talk detailing the struggle they’ve been fighting with Durham County Council over this last year, the action they’ve been involved in, the next steps, as well as the support and solidarity they’ve received from groups such as ourselves.
This came after a busy month of activity which has seen the TAs ratchet up their pressure on the council. On Wednesday 19th October it was announced that the members of Unison, involved in the dispute, have overwhelmingly voted in favour of industrial action by a resounding 93%. They organise 1,755 of the 2,700 Teaching Assistants in County Durham, which makes up the vast majority of the workforce. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers union (ATL), who are also involved, have held a ballot of their own which, by a turnout of 61%, has provided a solid mandate for action. They have voted 84% in favour of a strike.
The high vote in favour of industrial action demonstrates the strong mood that exists and a willingness to fight across the county. Following on from this, the County Durham Teaching Assistants Action Committee (CDTAAC), set up earlier in the year by rank and file TAs, began planning what to do next.
After the announcement of the strike ballots, a weeklong silent vigil was organised outside of Durham County Hall to coincide with the half-term break. Starting on Monday 24th October, all week long groups of TAs were stood by the entrance between 8am-4pm to show that they wouldn’t back down. Throughout the week they were visited by supporters and people from the local area who had heard about the dispute, all of whom were supportive of the workers and critical of Durham County Council for their attacks on this valuable section of our community.
At the end of the weeklong vigil a much larger demonstration was organised on Friday 28th. Approximately 300 TAs, their friends, families and supporters surrounded the entrance to Durham County Hall and made their voices heard. With megaphones, whistles and voices raised, chanting slogans, the sound of the TAs could be heard from a good distance away. Adding to this chorus was the sound of cars passing, many of the drivers honking their horns in recognition and in solidarity with the struggle and waving their hands to show their support.
It was inspiring to stand side-by-side with such courageous women, who remain defiant and unbowed in spite of all that they have faced, and to hear their stories.
Gillian reported that up to half of the TAs involved with the dispute had been off work over the last year due to stress and anxiety. The 23% cut to TAs wages proposed by Durham County Council would not only bring them below the living wage but would in effect mean they were working below the minimum wage for the work that they do. TAs are at risk of losing their homes and a number are being forced to consider changing a career that they have dedicated themselves to for more than 10,15 and 20 years.
As part of her talk Gillian also went through a number of myths that Durham County Council have been spreading through the media.
Durham County Council have claimed that the cuts are necessary in order to stave of potential equal pay claims from other workers at the council. A freedom of information request was put in by the unions which shows there is no evidence of this being true.
They have said that two out of four of the unions representing TAs in the county have accepted the new conditions. What they fail to state is that the two unions refusing the change, Unison and the ATL, represent a vast majority of the teaching assistants across the council. Of the other two, the GMB represent approx. 200 of the 2700 TAs in the county and Unite only have 2 members.
Durham County Council say that the change in contract will be more fair to their other staff, as the TAs are currently being paid for school holidays that they don’t work. Gillian explained that the contracts themselves clearly state that they are paid a salary for 32.6 hrs a week worked, with their holidays being the same as the school holidays. This salary would be paid in 12 equal instalments over the year and as such they are only paid for the time they actually work.
It has also been said that this cut will bring wages in line with TAs in other local authorities, which flies in the face of all evidence. At present a level 3 TA in County Durham can earn between £16,500-18,500pa. This is in comparison to those who work in nearby Stockton and Darlington who can up between £20,000-23,000pa in the exact same job. Middlesbrough and Gateshead Council’s also pay their TAs significantly more, and Durham County Council is one of only two other local authorities which are imposing such cuts to their TAs. In Derby, TAs have been suffering the same attacks and have taken part in several instances of strike action throughout the current year giving this dispute a national dimension.
The first strike
The CDTAAC and the unions called for the first series of strikes to take place on Tuesday 8th and Wednesday 9th November. This was the first time that most of the TAs had ever been involved in industrial action and they were unsure as to what to expect.
Reporting on the strike action via their blog, the Durham TAs said:
“On Tuesday, more than 100 schools were fully or partially closed and we had over 80 picket lines across the length and breadth of County Durham, some with a couple of TA pickets, some with many more.” (Durham Lions Blog)
In this action, contrary to their fears that they would stand alone, they received the support of their fellow staff, the teachers, as well as parents and members of the local community:
“These are people who see what we do every day, who know the difference we make to their children and to their schools and they were almost unanimously supportive.”
“The teachers I work with were gutted they were not able to join us on the picket line. Instead, they greeted us first thing with a huge hamper of goodies to keep us going and a lovely message of support. They also kept us supplied with hot drinks (and hugs) during the day, telling us that the school was eerily quiet without us and that they and the children were missing us all.” (Durham Lions Blog)
Gillian gave the example that at one particular school, which had 31 TAs on the picket line, the head refused the strikers the use of the bathrooms. On hearing of this, one of the locals, an elderly lady, opened her home to the strikers in solidarity if they needed a comfort break, saying that she supported what the TAs were fighting for.
On Wednesday 9th November, the second day of strike action, 1,500 people surrounded Durham County Hall for a demonstration. As on the 28th October, the scene was jubilant, as hundreds of TAs and their supporters made as much noise as they could so that the Council knew they were there and knew the TAs were not going to just go away without a fight. In this spirit of solidarity and community the decision was taken to march through the town for a large rally at Redhills, Durham Miners Hall, which was addressed by Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, Clare Williams, Unison regional convenor, and Shelagh Hirst, president of the ATL, amongst others.
Dave Prentis and Clare Williams were clear that no TA would be starved back to work and drew attention to the national significance of this dispute. It was said that the TAs are fighting to win not just for a compromise. This was a sentiment that gained long applause and cheers from the crowd.
The largest applause of all, during the whole rally, was reserved for one of their own. As reported on their Blog, Lisa Turnbull, one of the striking TAs, a Unison steward and the vice-chair of the CDTAAC, spoke, “with a real passion about the impact the last year has had on Durham Teaching Assistants; on our relationships at work, our relationships out of work, on our health and on our families. She reminded Durham County Council that we are real people, not numbers on a spreadsheet, and that these huge pay cuts will have a serious effect on our lives…. She raised the roof. A standing ovation before she began, a longer one after she had finished and several more in between. She voiced our hopes and our fears for the future and inspired us with her strength and courage.”
They were also very glad to have received the support of many locally and nationally as well. One of our comrades who was at the demonstration, march and rally at Durham Miners Hall reported from the scene:
“I have never been welcome like this before in my life after introducing myself as a Marxist. All the union members I met thanked me for just being there.”
The solidarity activities that Durham and Newcastle Marxist Societies have engaged in over the past period have meant that we are now seen as part of the wider movement in support of the striking TAs. Their fight is our fight, and whenever demos or picket lines are organised the TAs know that we will always do our best to be there to show our support.
Fight to transform Labour and the unions
After Gillian had spoken at our meeting on Thursday, during the question and answer session, attention was drawn to the wider political implications of this dispute.
It is a Labour council that is attacking these TAs and spreading the lies mentioned above in order to obscure the real issues at play. This brings to the fore the need to continue the Corbyn movement and to transform the Labour Party into one which truly represents the interests of the working class. We need to fight to democratise the party from top to bottom.
There remain many representatives inside the party who are more concerned with their salaries and positions than actually challenging the system that destroys the lives of the very workers who put them into such positions. If a councillor or MP is not willing to stand up and fight on behalf of the working class, and if they continue to cut in the interests of big business and the banks, then they should be removed from their position. Workers, trade unionists and true representatives of the working class should be elected in their place and they should be answerable to the movement. We need mandatory reselection at every level of the party,and our representatives should earn no more than that of an average skilled worker. In that way we can ensure they genuinely fight in our interests.
Marxists will have a big role to play in the battles that lay ahead, both inside the Labour Party and in the wider labour movement, including in the trade unions. We must take on the fight to transfer the militancy shown by the Durham TAs into the trade unions to change them into the fighting organisations capable of combatting the effects of the crisis of capitalism. And we must fight to complete the transformation of the Labour Party.
With a global crisis on the order of the day,we need now more than ever to fight for a socialist alternative, and the battle to transform the trade unions and the Labour Party is part of this wider struggle.
Solidarity with Durham TAs
Durham and Newcastle Marxist Societies have been setting aside part of our regular weekly meetings to discuss this dispute, the ballot result, and the solidarity action that we can take to support the struggle. Newcastle Marxist Society previously held a collection at which we raised £31.45 and Durham Marxist Society had managed to raise £20 to add to this. Add that to the £12+ that was collected on the night that Gillian Spoke to Durham Marxist Society and that makes £63.45+ raised so far, which has been donated to the Durham TAs strike/hardship fund.
With the announcement of further strike action on Wednesday 23rd and Thursday 24th November, we will be doing all we can to get comrades down to the picket lines.
This dispute must be taken up amongst the wider labour movement. The Durham TAs have stood strong and fought back against the attacks and pressure of Durham County Council and school management for almost a year now, but they will need our continued support in the fight ahead.
The Durham TAs have made great strides over the last year and look ready to fight until the end. Durham and Newcastle Marxist Societies will be with them every step of the way.
The day after the first bout of strike action took place the Durham Lions wrote on their blog:
“Solidarity has an amazing effect on people. Last week we were down, worried and feeling alone, not sure what this week would bring. We were individuals; stressed and intimidated by the actions of Durham County Council trying everything to keep schools open and divide us. This week, we are up, up, up: buoyed up by the strength of numbers, by the strength of others. We are a collective and we are proud and strong. Nobody in that hall yesterday would doubt our determination to see this through. This week is not the end of our strike action unless the Council sees sense, bows to political and public pressure and (to borrow the words of Jeremy Corbyn at this year’s Miners’ Gala) ‘get this sorted’. The Lions of Durham are not going away and we will not be silenced.” (Durham Lions Blog)