Thousands took to the streets of Birmingham last weekend to protest the Tory Party conference. Megan Charlton of the Durham TAs was there to participate and report
At 7.15 last Sunday morning, a group of 8 Teaching Assistants stood shivering at the side of a Durham Road wondering if it was worth giving up another Sunday (Labour Party Conference last Sunday), this time to travel to Birmingham for the national anti-austerity rally. Then the bus, organised by the People’s Assembly, arrived and we started to realise this was going to be a big day for our campaign. As we got on, we heard ‘it’s the Durham TAs’ and everybody cheered. It was an indication of the reception we would get later in Birmingham.
And what a reception that was. Everywhere we went and everybody we spoke to already knew about us and what we are fighting for. In the square before the march started, we were talking to our great friend, the inspirational John Burgess from Barnet Unison, when an organiser came over and said ‘Durham TAs, do you want to lead the march?’ Not an offer we were going to turn down so we followed as they moved aside barriers and people to get us to the front where we helped to carry the anti-austerity banner and proudly hoisted our own Durham TAs banner right behind it.
Organisers estimate 10,000 people marched through the streets of Birmingham on Sunday. There were representatives from the NHS, Firefighters, Education, Mental Health Services, Environmental groups and a myriad of unions all calling for an end to austerity and an end to savage cuts to public services. It was peaceful and good-humoured despite the serious message and the dire problems faced by many of the individuals and groups represented.
After the march, the Durham TAs had been invited to speak at a meeting organised by Unite the Resistance, a group of trade unionists from different unions who come together to organise solidarity for those fighting back against austerity. The meeting was supposed to start at 3pm but when we called in at 1.30 the pub was already packed and the upstairs room was almost full: a bit scary but my name was on the publicity so there was no backing out.
By the time I got up to speak, the room was packed to the rafters; people sitting on the floor, on the edge of the stage, standing in every available space. I won’t bore you with my whole speech but the main points were:
Durham County Council claim we are ‘paid for more hours than we actually work’: they claim we are paid for 37 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. A surprise to us as our contracts categorically state ‘this is your salary for the 32.5 hours a week you work, your holidays will be that of the school’. That salary is then divided into 12 equal parts.
The changes that DCC are imposing by sacking us on 31 December will lead to an average pay cut of 23%. To avoid this, you can be offered an additional 4.5 hours a week and ONLY receive a 10% pay cut. This is life-changing and has already lead to experienced Teaching Assistants leaving the profession; if DCC's plans go through it will lead to many more.
Durham County Council claim it has no choice as it ‘has to bring us into line with other councils’. Fine, then pay us ‘in line with other councils’. Regrade us to reflect our current role; more Assistant Teacher than Teaching Assistant. A Level 3 TA in Gateshead earns £20-£23,00 pa, as does a L3 TA in Stockton (both local councils). A Level 3 TA in Durham earns between £16,500-£18,500. So, DCC, if this is not about saving money and it’s only about possible equal pay claims, pay us the same as other councils then reduce the number of weeks we are paid and we don’t lose money and neither do you: sorted.
Unfortunately, the Council are not listening and we have just resoundingly rejected their proposal. So this week the ballot for industrial action starts. This is not a decision we take lightly as we fully understand the impact it will have on children, families and schools. But we honestly believe we have no choice: the impact on children, families and schools will be much greater if schools lose large numbers of experienced, professional, dedicated Teaching Assistants.
The response we received from the crowd was amazing: shock, disgust, sympathy, support in equal measures. We received a standing ovation (before and after the speech!) and then they passed round a collection to show their solidarity. We counted it on the way home - £318.66. As with our Just Giving page after Aditya Chakrabortty’s Guardian article, it wasn’t so much the money but the feeling of solidarity and support that came with it.
So, was it worth giving up another Sunday for our campaign? Absolutely. Everywhere we went, proudly wearing our Durham Teaching Assistants’ t-shirts, people offered their support, both moral and practical. Trade unionists from around the country assured us that, if (when) we strike, the movement will stand alongside us and make sure that we are not driven from taking industrial action by the fear of financial hardship. They believe in us and know that what we are fighting for is right and represents the fight of many people around the country facing huge cutbacks and the decimation of public services. They are proud of the way we have refused to be victims. They are proud of the way we have all stood together to say ‘enough, we won’t take this’.
We are the Lions of Durham: hear us roar!
A huge thank you to the People’s Assembly for organising the event, the transport and to our local group for holding a whip-round to pay for our seats. And a huge thank you to Unite the Resistance for inviting us to speak and spread the word about our campaign to fighting trade unionists from around the country. And lastly, a huge thank you to all those at the meeting (and throughout the day) who expressed their solidarity and support and donated to our cause.
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