Teaching assistants in County Durham are showing, by their shining example, how workers can and should collectively refuse to accept the logic of austerity, even when it is imposed upon them by a Labour-run Council.
Their current dispute can be traced back to October 2015, when their employer, the Labour-dominated Durham County Council, proposed to hand redundancy notices to 2,700 teaching assistants, so they could then rehire them after cutting their pay by as much as 23%. Consequently these low-paid (mostly female) workers have been fighting for their lives, with the date of their threatened redundancies now set for December 31.
So far these inspiring and defiant workers have taken two days of strike action (November 8 and 9), with a further days of strike action now set for November 23 and 24. Most of these striking workers are members of Unison, although members of ATL are taking coordinated strike action with them (the two teaching assistants who are members of Unite are not on strike, and unfortunately neither are the hundred or so members of GMB). But while Unison has now given this campaign the full support that it deserves… this wasn’t always so.
Megan Charlton, who is the Secretary of the County Durham Teaching Assistants Activist Committee explained some of the history of the launch of their campaign at an event organised by Unite the Resistance in London.
“Building a fighting union is exactly what we have done in Durham, a union, not with a big U but with a small u, that is bring all the teaching assistants together, no matter what union they are in, or whether they are not in a union, that is exactly what we’ve done. Because at the beginning, our unions (with a big U), were not fighting for us, they were just sitting back and allowing it to happen, and they were telling us, as well as the employers, that there wasn’t really anything that we could do – and that just wasn’t good enough. Some teaching assistants dealt with that by moving unions, but most of us decided, we are the union, the union is the members, and if they’re not fighting, then we are going to dam well make them fight. So that’s how a couple of weeks ago we got the vote for 93% strike action on a 64% turn-out… which was just unbelievable.”
The first day of strike action which saw picket lines organised outside of 80 schools, also provided the teaching assistants with their first opportunity to speak to parents about the reasons for their strike. And while the Labour Council continue to pretend that the pay cuts must be made and that their strikes have been ineffective, their actions were anything but ineffective, with 40 schools being closed and 100 others being partially closed.
The second strike day, was even better than the first, and saw over 1,000 striking and chanting teaching assistants congregate in the rain and snow on the roundabout outside of Durham County Hall. Speaking at the protest to ReelNews (who have just made a must-watch documentary about this dispute) Megan pointed out that:
“This is totally a grassroots-led campaign and that has been our absolute strength. It started with a facebook page [set up by Helen Pace] bringing everybody together for support and to make sure that information was consistent, and then it’s just gone on from there. So we’ve got our facebook page, but we’ve also got a network of school contacts that we’ve set up, 200 schools out of the 270 in County Durham that we have a contact in, that we spread information with; and that’s what all this is about, we’ve given people the power and strength to know that if you stand together you can fight this.”
Another leading campaigner for the teaching assistants, Lisa Turnbull, emphasised the brilliant early support that the workers had received from the Durham Miners Association and the County Durham Trades Union Council. In stark contrast to the Blairite politics of the Labour-led Durham County Council, other trade unionist and Labour Party members recognised the importance of supporting the teaching assistants in their dispute against a bullying employer.
Labour Party member and Secretary of the local Trades Council, Ben Sellers, noted that when his Trades Council “first got involved in helping the TAs, the hostility which we faced was palpable”; this owing to the openly Blairite position taken by the Labour Council. Ben continued:
“That’s pretty ironic, looking back at it. Through the Trades Council’s involvement, I believe that we were able to pull the situation back from one which would have benefited Labour’s opponents most – and quite possibly turned the campaign into a political vehicle for an anti-union, anti-Labour ideology. You can hardly blame the LibDems, UKIP and various independents (and even a few of the far right) from making hay when a Labour council is treating its key workers in this way. Not only are Teaching Assistants vitally important in terms of education in the County, but also exactly the people that Labour need to win back if they were to stop the kind of catastrophe we’ve seen in Scotland. By showing that Labour members and grassroots trade unionists were behind them, at least we could demonstrate that the situation was more complicated than that painted by UKIP and the like. Over the last year there has been a sea change, mainly because of the efforts of the Teaching Assistants themselves, but also because the internal dynamics of the Labour Party have been laid bare – shown most clearly when Jeremy Corbyn told DCC to ‘get this sorted’ at the Durham Miners’ Gala. When given the facts by a fantastic, vibrant, informed and social media savvy campaign, Labour members in Durham have chosen the side of the TAs, including many of the MPs (some under pressure, admittedly). Whereas a year ago, many of those same members were buying into [Labour leader Simon] Henig’s narrative that this was inevitable, that the council had no choice, that has all changed and hardly any party member outside of the council chamber supports their stance.”
What is now becoming abundantly clear is that the Labour Councils across the country can no longer get away with carrying through attacks to their communities and simply point their fingers at Tory funding cuts. Labour Party members, workers, and the broader public are now vocal in demanding more from their Labour councillors. And if Labour councillors see no option but to carry through Tory cuts to jobs and services, then perhaps they should step aside and allow themselves to be replaced by other Labour councillors who will be willing to fight shoulder-to-shoulder alongside their constituents.
For more details on the dispute see http://lionsofdurham.blogspot.co.uk
Follow the teaching assistants on twitter @TAs_Durham, and on facebook https://m.facebook.com/TAsDurhamValueUs/ and consider making a donation to their strike fund https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/countydurhamteachingassistants