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

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

The Durham Teaching assistants campaign is a lesson in organised resistance

I am proud to say I am a Durham Teaching Assistant. I am writing about our continuing campaign and how we organised it. It is now 20 months on since it began. My theme, Behind Closed Doors or Out in The Open?, indicates the difference in approach between Durham Teaching Assistants and the local council that threatens our pay. We have made a point of fighting our dispute before the public gaze. This is about why we have been so successful and how we forced Durham County Council back around the table for further discussion. It takes a lot of guts to speak out against injustice, and we did, when we were threatened with being disciplined. Behind Closed doors takes you to the other end of the spectrum. Durham County Council makes decisions behind closed doors, in boardrooms. They spoke about their attack on the TAs publicly only when pressurised and even then they were evasive. In the end, however, the truth will out.

Behind closed doors… Briefly, the story so far: Since November 2015, in response to ‘legal advice’, Durham County Council (which I will refer to as DCC) voted to cut the TAs’ pay by 23%, taking our salaries to well below the Labour Party’s pledge of a decent living wage of £10 per hour. The council claimed to be responding to “legal advice” to the threat of an equalities pay claim. They claimed we were being paid for more hours than we worked and were paid for 52 weeks when we do not work during school holidays (we dispute this claim). They said it was not a budget cutting exercise. But of course, as we know, school budgets are being cut in other areas. Moreover, DCC attacked a workforce that is 96% female, of 2700 TAs. Some of us stand to lose £4000 per year.

Behind closed doors… Rather than confront the issue, the Labour Council seemed determined to keep their decision from any kind of democratic scrutiny. At a DCC meeting on 9th December 2015, Owen Temple (Lib Dem Councillor) tabled a motion to withdraw the proposals to slash the pay of TAs. But Labour Councillors lined up speaker after speaker to run the clock down and prevent any further discussion.

Behind closed doors… On 16 May 2016, 57 Labour Councillors voted, after very little discussion, to dismiss TAs on New Year's Eve 2016 and rehire them New Years Day 2017 with the 23% pay cut.

Behind closed doors… When we tried to make such savage cuts public, DCC threatened us. By email and by pulling individual TA’s into a room with their Headteachers, DCC tried to gag the TAs. They told us we could not speak to parents, that we couldn’t ask them to sign our petitions or ask them to write to their Cllrs. We could not wear our Durham t-shirts on Council property as they were deemed inappropriate. They warned us not to say anything on social media. They warned us not to bring the Council into disrepute. Early on in the dispute, even our union, Unison, agreed, issuing a bulletin telling members not to make comments on social media or the press. We ignored them!

Behind closed doors… Both the council and Unison seem to prefer backroom deals to actual participation by the workers they employ/represent. Talks have been happening since December 2016 between the Unions and DCC, with one TA in attendance. But guess what? The council insisted that talks took place behind closed doors, under a signed confidentiality agreement, no less. Meanwhile, the majority of Durham Teaching Assistants, whilst being told progress is being made, hope to receive an offer sometime in June (but who knows?) and will then be balloted.

Now in contrast:

Out in the open… At a mass meeting, we elected a Committee, the County Durham Teaching Assistant Activist Committee. We immediately went about telling people of the shocking attack on our salaries.

Out in the open… We have campaigned publicly, depending upon the activism of our workers and the fact that DCC’s position is morally indefensible. We have constantly organised ourselves – often against the advice of our union – and have made many allies throughout our struggle. The Durham TAs proudly marched at the Miners’ Gala July 2016. We were the largest group there. We followed our Durham TA flag and wore our Durham t-shirts.

Out in the open… The Durham TAs travelled to the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. We met John McDonnell, Angela Rayner and other MPs and union activists. Due to our Twitter pressure, we also met Dave Prentis there, which led to Unison fully backing our campaign, a crucial development.

Out in the open… The Durham TAs spread the word by speaking at various events across the country. Most recently, at both the ATL National conference and the NUT National conference, we received standing ovations.

Out in the open… A big focus has been social media – facebook and twitter. We have made contacts with various media figures, such as Ken Loach, Kevin Maguire from The Daily Mirror, and Aditya Chakrabortty from The Guardian. Chakrabortty’s article resulted in our JustGiving page raising £36,268. That article was spread across the country via Twitter and FB. We’ve had twitterstorms and a Thunderclap which reached over 500,000 followers (I’m proud to say I am a member of the Durham TAs Twitterati - a small select group who tweet every day). Largely through our social media campaign, we became a national rather than simply a regional campaign.

Out in the open… We held two lots of two-day strikes in November 2016 and noisy demos outside County Hall, where there were over 1000 people present. We picketed our schools, which gave us our first chance to speak to parents, who showed their full support and were shocked at the treatment meted out by DCC.

Out in the open… The most recent march and rally was on 25th March 2017. This brought supporters and campaigners from across the country: from Camden, Barnet, Bolton and more. An estimated 1000 plus people attended this march. I was honoured to be given an opportunity to speak at this gathering. The greetings from the public as we marched was amazing and positive.

Out in the open… We made an impact in the local elections in May. We named and shamed the 57 Cllrs who voted for our cuts. Possibly because of this, 20 lost their seats. Councillors and MPs are now listening.

Out in the open… Durham TAs have changed forever. The actions of DCC have empowered us. Yes - we are exhausted but we will continue to fight. We are different people, more open, more active, less timid. We are known countrywide. We have built a solidarity that is going down in history.

Sadly, over the past year or more, the choice, even for a lifelong Labour voter like me, has been to either support the Durham Teaching Assistants or to support the Durham Labour Party. Do we want rule by secretive, bureaucratic and anti-democratic Councillors or by real public democratic decision-making? Which is the better way?: Behind closed doors or out in the open.

The point is, we organised ourselves instead of waiting for the trade unions. We have solidarity; this was ensured by our ever increasing numbers of TAs on a closed Facebook wall. This is where we shared some of the conflicting information from Unison and the council, where we complained about lack of action. Here, we were made aware of the differing approaches to the dispute of Headteachers. Here, we organised our public events. No one else.

However, I must admit that the assurance of full strike pay by Unison and ATL ensured the majority of Unison and ATL TAs came out on strike, which had a major impact. The strike action resulted in the suspension of our dismissal letters and DCC coming back around the table for discussions.

How has this campaign changed me? At the age of 56, my interest in politics has been awakened. Prior to this campaign, I had always voted but my energies had always been focussed on my family and work. Boy, how that has changed.

We are now travelling countrywide to speak out in support of other campaigns like against NHS cuts. We will not stop once our campaign is successful – and it will be. Having been awakened, we will not stop. My faith in Labour and the Unions has been shaken but my faith in humankind has increased.

I must add my gratitude to the support of Durham Labour Left, The Durham Miners and Durham TUC. Ben Sellers trained us up in Social Media, especially in Twitter. John Burgess – Barnet Unison has guided and supported us selflessly. Kathryn Wray and Dave Ayre have shown their support and been in attendance at every public demonstration.

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