Teaching assistant protest in Durham on Saturday 25 March 2017. Photo: Megan Charlton Teaching assistant protest in Durham on Saturday 25 March 2017. Photo: Megan Charlton

Durham teaching assistants brought together people from across the country in a huge show of solidarity

This weekend was a first for the County Durham Teaching Assistants’ Activist Committee; it was the first time we had organised an event and asked people from around the country to come and stand in solidarity with us. We had no idea what to expect, would anyone come? Would there be enough people to make an impact, enough to fill the Miners’ Hall at Redhills?

Some of the committee met at Redhills early then walked the route in reverse. As we walked into the Market Place, the first thing we saw was a group of Derby TAs in their easily recognisable black t-shirts. It was the first time any of us had actually met up but it felt like we were welcoming old friends as we have been following and supporting each other’s campaigns on facebook and twitter for months. Hugs all round and introductions so that we could put names to faces, comparing notes and sharing stories and experiences.

We then walked round the corner to the rallying point, Millennium Square, and my stomach sank to see only a couple of dozen people there, mostly Durham TAs in white t-shirts. Telling myself to stop panicking (it was only 11 a.m. and we weren’t due to meet until noon), I enjoyed the music from the TA-requested playlist blaring out from the sound van and chatted to old and new friends. Our ever-reliable supporters from Barnet Unison and Doncaster Care UK Strikers were already there, banners unfurled, along with more Derby TAs and a DLI (Durham Light Infantry) veteran with his own version of our banner supporting our cause and protesting against the Council’s shameful decision to close the DLI museum.

As we stood and chatted, the square began to fill up. More Durham TAs, more Derby TAs and many, many more banners: Unison branches from Durham, Northern Region, Camden, Derby, Gateshead, Doncaster, Bolton, London Fire Brigade as well as Durham Miners’ Association, Bolton Trades Council, Blacklist Support Group, RMT union, Derwentside Independents and branches of ATL and NUT to name but a few. By 12 o’clock, the square was full and the atmosphere electric with TAs thanking supporters for coming and showing their solidarity and supporters thanking TAs for fighting and for inspiring others to fight.

Before we left the square, the crowd heard from speakers Lisa Turnbull, Vice Chair of the Durham TAs committee, Dawn, teacher (and ex-TA) from the People’s Assembly, Durham County Councillors Owen Temple and Alex Watson who have been huge supporters of our campaign from the start. However, for me, the highpoint was listening to Durham TAs Bridget Yuill and Vicki Yarrow.

Bridget has worked tirelessly in the background of our campaign, writing letters, tweeting furiously and holding people to account. She has always been keen to be involved but was not confident about speaking in public. However, in December she stepped in to run a workshop at a Momentum event in Newcastle and then on Saturday she stood on a bollard and addressed a crowd of 1000+ to talk about how the stress of the last 18 months has affected her and her family. Vicki Yarrow was unaware of the campaign until last October and felt isolated in her school, fighting alone. All that changed when she drove past County Hall in half term and saw a couple of people standing outside with placards on our week-long vigil. She stopped and went to ask them what it was all about and discovered she wasn’t alone at all, she was part of a campaign and belonged to a huge group of fighting TAs. She loved it so much she went back every day for that week and when we repeated the vigil in February and has never missed an event since. To me, Bridget and Vicki sum up what our campaign is about: ordinary people growing in confidence with the knowledge that what they are fighting for is right.

By 12.45pm the square was packed and we set off for the Miners’ Hall at Redhills, led by the blue and yellow Durham TA banner followed by Durham Miners’ Association banner bearing the picture of our great supporter Davey Hopper. We streamed, chanting, through the Market Place and down the cobbles of Silver Street, pausing for photos on medieval Framwellgate Bridge with the stunning backdrop of Durham Cathedral. Then onwards to the historic Miners’ Hall, a sea of banners and people behind us as we crossed beneath the viaduct and climbed up to Redhills.

Worried that not many would turn up? We really shouldn’t have! Luckily it was a beautiful day and we had a sound system to relay the speeches outside so the many people who couldn’t fit in could sit in the gorgeous grounds and enjoy the sunshine. We heard from Alan Cummings (Secretary of Durham Miners Association) and union speakers Clare Williams (Regional Secretary of Unison), Niamh Sweeney (Vice President of ATL), Kevin Courtney (General Secretary of NUT) and Daniel Kebede (local teacher and NUT Asst Branch Secretary) all of whom spoke about the vital role TAs play in our schools and the importance of supporting our fight. Nicole Berrisford (Derby Unison Branch Secretary) spoke about the courageous campaign Derby TAs have waged with over 60 days of strike action, culminating last week in a greatly improved offer, and the hall stood as one and applauded the coach load of Derby TAs up on the balcony. We also heard from Dave Ayre, veteran of the trade union movement, huge supporter of Durham TAs, member of UCATT and Durham Trades Council. He talked about his experiences of solidarity through the decades, of supporting the miners and he brought tears to many eyes when he asked the hall to join him in singing ‘We shall overcome’.

Lisa Turnbull did what she always does so brilliantly: spoke from the heart about the children she works with and about her family and reduced most of the audience to tears talking about courage and resilience. I spoke about the debt of gratitude we owe to all of our supporters but, most importantly, to the small group of courageous women who started off our campaign despite threats and coercion: Helen and Laura who set up the original facebook support group; Helen, Gillian, Anne and Lisa who never gave up and built our campaign from the bottom up, giving us all a voice and giving us hope.

Gillian spoke about the 57 Labour Councillors who voted to sack us. Some Labour supporters in the audience were upset about this as they felt that we should be supporting Labour over the alternatives in upcoming local elections. They failed to understand the enormous stress and pressure we have been under for the last 18 months, not knowing if we would lose 23% of our pay, not knowing if we could afford to stay in our jobs. But more importantly, they failed to realise that we NEED councillors who are Labour in values, not just in name; councillors who will stand up and say enough is enough, we are not allowing this to happen to the hardworking people of County Durham. We are not stupid or naive, we know that the Council have difficult choices but we need councillors who will ask questions, who will demand answers and who will look for alternatives; not councillors who will blindly accept what they are told.

It was a wonderful day, definitely one that memories are made of and we really didn’t need to worry about how many people would turn up. Throughout our campaign we have been humbled and filled with pride by the support we have received from around the country and Saturday was our opportunity to say a huge thank you for that solidarity … and to remind Durham County Council we are not going away until this is sorted.

Durham Teaching Assistants would like to say a huge thank you to:

All of the speakers and supporters who travelled to Durham on Saturday in solidarity with our campaign, it means a huge amount to us to know that we are not alone and that others believe in us and what we are fighting for;

Ben, Kathryne, Graham and Dave from Durham Trades Council for supporting us right from the start and for bringing Durham Miners’ Association on board despite huge pressure not to support us;

Local media for giving us a voice and a platform, especially Zoe Muldoon from Made in Tyne and Wear and Archie Mackay from Shildon Town Crier for being there at the start when nobody else was listening. Also to Raymie Kiernan, Aditya Chakrabortty and Shaun Dey for taking our campaign nationwide;

The trade union movement, Unite the Resistance and People’s Assembly for standing by us and with us and sending donations, messages of solidarity and inviting us to speak at events across the country. In particular, John Burgess for his tireless practical and moral support over many months;

Our unions, Unison and ATL, for their unprecedented move to pay us full strike pay from day one, sending a clear message to Durham County Council that they believed in our fight and were 100% behind us;

Grassroots members of our local CLPs who, despite huge pressure, put forward motions in support of TAs and helped pile pressure on the Council to negotiate;

But, as always, my biggest thanks goes to my fellow Durham TAs for, as Lisa calls it, ‘bouncebackability’ (knew it would be too long for the back of a t-shirt!). We have shown immense resilience and determination over the last 18 months, we have suffered many setbacks but we have kept bouncing back, we have kept climbing out of that pit because we know that what the Council was proposing was fundamentally wrong and unjust and we weren’t prepared to stand by and let it happen to us or to our schools;

A special thank you to Polly Donnison for creating the fabulous Durham TA cartoon at the top of the page.

Thank you to Sol from Dawn Til Dusk for just knowing what we needed on Saturday and sorting it all out with brilliant sound (and playlist) in the Gala Square and at Redhills.


Follow us on Twitter: @TAs_Durham