Durham Teaching Assistants protest. Photo: @TAs_Durham Durham Teaching Assistants protest. Photo: @TAs_Durham

The Durham Teaching Assistants’ dispute has been going on for some time now, Tony Dowling speaks to Megan Charlton to find out what it’s all about

In October 2015, Durham County Council wrote to all of its TAs saying that our pay would be cut by 10% if we agreed to work an extra 4.5 hours a week. They left it to us to work out how much we would lose if we continued to work the hours stated in our contracts – on average a loss of 23%. The Council claimed that we were paid for 37 hours a week and for 52 weeks a year and this could lead to equal pay claims (although there had never been one). However,  our contracts clearly state (and always have done) that we are paid for 32.5 hours a week and our holidays will be that of the school. We are paid a salary which is divided into 12 equal parts – this arrangement goes back to the 1970’s when Nursery Nurses were paid only during term time and could sign on in the holidays. This was then changed to spread their pay out over the year, i.e. we are already paid term time only but our pay is divided into monthly payments.

Why did you decide to fight and how did you organise that fightback?

We didn’t have any choice but to fight. What would you do faced with a pay loss of thousands of pounds a year? I work 4 days a week and would have lost almost £3500. Some TAs would have lost over £4500. Teaching Assistants were faced with losing their homes or leaving their jobs. Many have done the job for years and are highly trained and experienced; we love the job and know we make a difference to the children we work with, often the most vulnerable children in our school. We decided to fight for ourselves but also for the future of our profession and for the children we support.

The fightback started with a facebook support group set up by Helen Pace, a TA who was worried about the isolation felt by many TAs spread out across the county and by the lack of clear, consistent information available. This led to cluster group meetings where TAs came together, voiced their concerns and supported each other, to demonstrations outside County Hall, rallies at the Miners’ Hall, marching in the Durham Miners’ Gala and, ultimately, to 4 days of strike action. One of the key things in fighting back was getting our message out to counter the claims made by Durham County Council. We did this by speaking to local and national media, by distributing leaflets, by talking to people in our communities and by waging a huge campaign on social media. The strength of our campaign is that it is by TAs for TAs, a grassroots campaign but with support from outside, particularly Durham Trades Council and Durham Miners’ Association.

It has been unusual in recent times for workers to take strike action, how did that come about?

Frustration with the Council’s refusal to talk to us or listen to us. They held 3 rounds of ‘negotiations’ but the only changes they made were to the timescale of when the pay cuts would be brought in. When Unison and ATL Teaching Assistants rejected the ‘final’ offer by a huge majority, the Council voted to sack us on New Year’s Eve and reinstate us on New Year’s Day. A Labour Council voting to sack low-paid, mostly female staff to impose massive pay cuts! We really didn’t have a choice and we were so, so angry at the way we were being treated and the way we were being portrayed by the Council who made us sound like we were claiming for money we weren’t entitled to.

Have you had support from your union officials?

At the beginning our union officials, like everybody else, told us Durham County Council would not back down, there was nothing we could do. But we knew it was wrong and morally indefensible to cut our pay by 23% so we kept piling the pressure on in any way we could. We spoke to local and national media, we lobbied our unions in person, in writing and through social media and we had a face to face meeting with Dave Prentis (Unison General Secretary) at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool.

At this meeting, he made a personal commitment to getting our dispute sorted and to supporting us if we voted for strike action. When we delivered a 93% vote for industrial action on a turnout of 64%, Unison agreed to pay strike pay for every day we were on strike. Unison represents the vast majority of Durham TAs (1755). ATL members (120) also voted to strike and have been supported financially by their union. Sadly, GMB members (200) and the single Unite member voted to accept the Council’s final offer and their unions signed up to a separate agreement with the Council.

What has been the response from your non-TA work colleagues and the children’s parents and carers?

The response from the children’s parents and carers has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive. Before we went on strike, we were not allowed to speak to parents about what was happening and many didn’t know the details. Some had only heard the Council’s side and were horrified when we were able to explain it properly. These are people who were greatly inconvenienced by us being on strike but they understand the importance of the role we play in school and they want us to be able to continue in our jobs and support their children.

The majority of non-TA work colleagues have also been very supportive. They find it very difficult seeing the huge amount of stress TAs have been under, worrying about their jobs and how they will support their families if these pay cuts go through. In County Durham, teachers and TAs have always worked as a team doing the best they can for the children, working extra hours, doing whatever is needed but the last year has made it very difficult as we have felt so demoralised and undervalued that we have refused to do all of the extras we used to do without question or hesitation. 

During our strike action, we also had good support from local CLPs. Three of them passed motions in support of Teaching Assistants and this added to the pressure on the Labour Council, who had already faced calls from Jeremy Corbyn to ‘Get it Sorted’.

Your strike action was very well supported and you had huge numbers out on picket lines, how was that organised?

We organised the picket lines through our facebook support page and our school contacts (we have built up a network of school contacts in over 200 schools across the County and use them to send and gather information). During our first 2 days of strike action we had over 80 picket lines at different schools: the second time there were 120. Most TAs had never been on strike before and I don’t think any of us had been on a picket line. Some TAs were nervous about picketing their school the first time so they joined with other local schools. Once they saw that we were not picketing to stop people from going into work but to take the opportunity to explain our case to parents and the public, they had the confidence to do it themselves the next time.

The run up to striking was really difficult as the Council were putting enormous pressure on Headteachers to keep their schools open: some Heads were told it was Ok to open without a qualified First Aider ‘as long as there was somebody responsible enough to dial 999’; some parents of SEND children were asked to keep them at home; teachers were told they had to change their PPA time; governors and parent helpers were asked to come in to help supervise children. However, once we were on strike and were able to come together, we felt the strength of solidarity and the power of many voices.

On our 2ndstrike day, over 1000 demonstrated outside County Hall then held a rally at the Miners’ Hall: on the 4thday, we marched into Durham and took over the Gala Square. Both times the majority were Teaching Assistants but we also had supporters from trade union branches around the country, from local groups, from Durham councillors and also many individuals who believed in what we were fighting for.

The strikes have resulted in Durham Council suspending the threat of dismissal. What is happening now?

Because Durham County Council suspended the threat of dismissal and agreed to a full review of the roles and responsibilities of TAs, Unison and ATL suspended the industrial action. Negotiations have now begun but we are very clear that, if there is no demonstrable progress in the first few months of this year, we will not hesitate to continue with our strike action and Unison and ATL are fully behind us on this.

What are you hoping will be the outcome?

Durham County Council have said from the start that this is not about saving money. If that is the case, the outcome should be one that doesn’t cost the Council more money and doesn’t cost the Teaching Assistants money. We have never asked for a pay rise, we simply want to continue doing the same job for the same money promised in our contracts.

What have you learned from being involved in this dispute?

The importance of solidarity, a word I had rarely used before this dispute began. We started as individuals in our own classes, in our own schools, spread out across our big county and we felt powerless. But the more we came together, the stronger and more confident we became. We built solidarity from the inside through our facebook page and our school contacts and that’s what helped us to deliver such a strong mandate to strike. We also built solidarity from outside through our social media campaign and knowing that people around the country really believed in what we were doing made us even stronger.

TA Committee members have travelled all over the country speaking at events and hearing from experienced trade unionists that we are inspiring others to fight back is truly humbling. When this is over, we fully intend to repay the solidarity we have received by supporting others.

And finally, what lessons or advice would you give to other groups of workers involved in disputes and/or potential strike action?

Organise! Have good channels of communication and use them to bring people together. This can be physically through meetings, demonstrations, rallies and social events but also virtually through social media groups. The more that people come together and feel part of something, the stronger and more confident they will become.

And if you are planning strike action, remember that it is perfectly normal to feel unsure and nervous before it starts. Your employer will try everything to unsettle and undermine you but stay strong. Once your strike action begins and you come together to picket and to demonstrate this togetherness will give you strength.

But most importantly, don’t be a victim. If you are faced with unreasonable demands or behaviour from your employer, stand up to them. You don’t have to accept it, whatever anyone tells you, you CAN fight back and you CAN make a difference.

Tony Dowling

Tony Dowling is a teacher, socialist, trade unionist, antifascist, anti-war & anti-cuts activist. He is currently chair of North East People's Assembly and a member of Counterfire.