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Durham Teaching Assistants preparing to picket, County Durham, November 2016. Photo: Tony Dowling

Durham Teaching Assistants preparing to picket, County Durham, November 2016. Photo: Tony Dowling

The Durham Teaching Assistants ratcheted up their campaign with two days of strike action last week. Megan Charlton was there to report

Last week (8 and 9 November) Durham Teaching Assistants (TAs) went on strike for the first time. Many of us had never been on strike before and most of us had never been on a picket line. We had no idea what to expect and no idea how much support we would get from parents as we haven’t been able to speak to them about it before.

We shouldn’t have worried: the response from parents and grandparents was overwhelmingly positive. Once you have the opportunity to explain that Durham County Council want us to continue in the same job, working the same hours for a 23% pay cut or continue in the same job, but work more hours for a 10% pay cut they are shocked and disgusted. These are people who see what we do, and the results of what we do, every day. They understand our value and the difference we make to their children and grandchildren and they want us to be able to continue in our jobs.

The reaction in the wider community was the same. Many TAs went in to their local towns, or around houses in the area, giving out leaflets and explaining why we felt we had to go on strike. People know we are causing disruption to families, to schools, to children’s education but they also know we haven’t brought this on. We have been driven to take this action because of what the Council are doing. If you ask people: ‘Would you accept a 23% pay cut?’ I think you can guess what the answer will be.

And the reaction from Durham TAs was superb. The week before we went on strike, people were nervous, worried, unsure of what to expect. Huge pressure was put on them – and the Heads - as Durham County Council tried to keep schools open at all costs. We have heard of schools being told they could open without qualified First Aiders, schools bringing in supply to cover teachers’ Planning, Preparation & Assessment time, and trainee TAs being told they had to come into school on Tuesday - one of the strike days - instead of going into college as they would ordinarily do.  

Banners

But once the strike began, they felt the strength of being part of a collective: even if there were only 2 or 3 pickets outside their school, they knew there were another 80 picket lines across the county all doing the same thing. By the end of the day, the mood on our support group page was overwhelmingly positive. TAs were blown away by the support they had received from their communities: people opened up their houses for toilet breaks, teachers brought out hot drinks at break times, local people and businesses turned up at picket lines with refreshments.

But if we thought Tuesday was good, Wednesday was out of this world. Over 1000 TAs and supporters circled the roundabout outside County Hall and spread up the approaching roads. There were banners from different unions and from other parts of the country, showing how much our campaign has spread and is respected throughout the trade union movement. TAs sang, chanted, whistled and cheered every vehicle that hooted as they went past.

We stood in the rain for 3 hours and then walked down to the Miners’ Hall at Redhills for a rally organised by Unison, the union which represents the majority of Durham TAs. The hall was packed, actually it was crammed, and the atmosphere was electric. While we waited for Dave Prentis, Unison’s General Secretary, to arrive we sang and chanted some more. We even cried when a TA read out a letter to the Council from a 13 year old girl, telling them that what they are doing is wrong and explaining what a difference TAs have made to her education.

When Dave Prentis spoke, he told us that our campaign is of national importance and that we have the full weight of the union behind us, now and for as long as it takes to win. He received rapturous applause when he announced that we would be financially supported from day 1 of the strike and that no TA would be forced not to strike for financial reasons. This promise has now been confirmed with Unison’s pledge to top up strike pay from the start so that nobody loses out financially. A very powerful message that Unison is determined to make sure we win this: for ourselves and for others around the country.

Immense

We also heard from Lisa Turnbull, Vice-chair of the County Durham TAs Activist Committee (CDTAA), who spoke powerfully and movingly about the impact the last year has had on Teaching Assistants, on their health and on their families. We know TAs are off work with stress, we know TAs have already left the profession, the children of TAs are telling their parents they don’t want to go on school trips because their mum is losing some of her pay, telling them they don’t want Christmas presents this year.

It is tough, but this last week has shown us what a difference it is to be part of a collective. Leading up to the strike, we were individuals; alone in our classrooms, in our schools, spread out across the county. But this last week has shown us the strength we have when we all come together and act together. At the Unite the Resistance conference in London yesterday, a primary teacher stood up and spoke in support of our campaign and the importance of TAs in delivering quality education to ALL children.

One thing she said really stuck in my mind: struggle builds confidence. She is absolutely right. When we look around at our fellow TAs and our campaign, we can’t help but feel immense pride at what we have achieved so far and what we can still achieve. Individuals have grown in strength and confidence, doing things they never thought they would be able to do 12 months ago.

But our greatest strength is our solidarity: solidarity within our campaign as a united group and solidarity from outside with the support we are getting from across the country. And that is a powerful feeling: we are not giving up and we are not shutting up because we can win this, for ourselves, for the future of our profession, the future of the children of County Durham and to give hope to others around the country who are facing similar horrendous cuts to their pay and conditions.

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