George Binette

Teaching Assistants Resist Labour Councils' Attacks

George Binette

OVERWHELMINGLY FEMALE, generally low-paid and all too often overlooked, teaching assistants (TAs) have become a key element of the workforce in both primary and secondary education. Many of these dedicated women work additional hours unpaid and regularly take on tasks beyond their job descriptions, but in recent months two Labour-run local authorities, Derby City and Durham County, have pushed TAs to breaking point.

Under the guise of so-called ‘equal pay reviews’ both councils have pressed ahead with proposals to slash the pay of many TAs by as much as 25%. In essence, the threat has been to pay school support staff on a term-time only basis.

The Derby dispute has already seen TAs mount a one-day strike on 16th June, which shut 30 of the city’s schools, followed by a series of two-hour walk-outs the next week. A further strike and a lobby of Parliament were planned for 14 September.

In County Durham the Cabinet member for corporate services, Cllr Jane Brown, told the local press that TAs would lose “only” (!) 10% of their earnings, though that claim relied on workers increasing their weekly hours to 37 from the current 32.5 for which a ‘typical’ TA receives just under £20,000 a year. While the Council has made marginal concessions in terms of transitional compensation, the Labour Group leadership still appears determined to impose new contracts with the threat to sack and re-engage some 2,700 TAs from January 2017.

In both Derby and County Durham the attacks on TAs’ pay have spurred the development of real rank and file activism, which in Durham has brought TAs into conflict with their own union, Unison, currently representing over 60% of the workforce. While the Durham women organised a contingent of hundreds of TAs and their supporters at the annual Miners’ Gala and a large lobby of a July council meeting, there have been serious accusations of foot-dragging and even complicity with the Labour council by union officials. These culminated in a damning article by Guardian journalist Aditya Chakrabortty, whose piece has elicited a response from the union, which has publicly pledged full support to the Derby TAs and indicated that it would back strike action in County Durham if, as anticipated, members rejected the Council’s latest offer.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it seems a curious state of affairs when members of a 1.2 million strong union feel obliged to launch crowdfunding appeals. Meanwhile, across the Party and the labour movement it’s vital to demand that Labour councillors stop attacking the earnings of low-paid workers, whatever their gender.

  • To donate to the Durham TAs go to: CountyDurhamTeachingAssistants
  • For Derby City go to: unisonderbyschools.

Chair of Camden Trades Council and trade union co-ordinator, Hackney North CLP