Durham Teaching Assistants – Not Finished Yet?

Like so many workers in the North East, we have been following the doughty fight put up by the Durham TAs against the attempt by Labour-controlled Durham County Council to cut their earnings. In a period when one section of workers after another has been pushed back their example has been an encouragement to many. Over the two years of this struggle we have spoken to many TAs from different schools in the various events they have organised and participated in their admirably open mass meetings. However, after seeing the discontent at the supposed “overwhelming” acceptance of the latest Unison-negotiated “final offer” we decided to issue a leaflet with our own comments which we gave out during the demonstration/picket of Durham Council’s County Hall on October 26.

The two-hour demonstration was attended by about 80 TAs and their supporters who reject not only the “deal” but also the way it has come about. Although the number was relatively small compared to the mobilisations of the past, hundreds of cars, buses, ambulances, and a fire engine tooted, every few seconds as they went past. Even some coming out of the council offices for lunch tooted in support. This demonstrates that a groundswell of sympathy for the TAs is still there. However sympathy is not the same as solidarity. The kind of solidarity for which the TAs have been famed for in their refusal to accept deals which may be(?) OK for the majority but a disaster for the other 25% or 472 people.

After months of scaremongering tactics the Council and Unison (the main union in the dispute and the only one with “negotiating rights”), working together as always, took advantage of the school holidays (as they have done already in the past) to wait to put a “new offer” to the TAs and call a ballot. The summer break was enough to cool the ardour of some and this appears to have affected some of the Activists Committee which had been so inspirational in keeping the struggle solid. [For our previous analysis of the struggle see leftcom.org and leftcom.org]

In our leaflet we wondered why the Committee had not fought to reject the latest offer. At the demonstration we found out why. One TA on the picket/demonstration explained that “some of the Committee seem to have been turned by the union”. In fact they had split. The split was politically motivated by leading members of the Committee which was justifed in Counterfire, an organisation which unquestionably supports Corbyn and the Labour Party. The mealy mouthed defence of their action can be found on the Counterfire website at counterfire.org.

Counterfire campaigns to support both Labour and the unions. So their agenda here – where the main adversary is the Labour council, working in cahoots with the union – was to encourage their supporters to get the struggle “sorted”. (Corbyn’s word at the Miners Gala in July 2016). No matter that so many TAs have dedicated so much time and effort to it, and that the ‘settlement’ is no victory. Other members on the struggle committee thought otherwise. They called the 26 October demonstration because they want to reject this sell-out.

The TAs are largely a mild-mannered, intelligent, and dedicated group of workers, most of whom have no interest in “politics”. It is clear that the Council (and the unions) thought they would be a pushover. However, the blatant injustice of the attack on their living standards, as well as the lack of recognition for the work they do, turned them into the “Lions of Durham”. So it was extremely surprising that they suddenly voted for an offer which is basically the same as before, except that the Council have promised to set up a “Progression Board” to ensure that the 472 would somehow not lose out (the precise way this is supposed to happen is a mystery and leaves everything at the discretion of the Council). It now appears that the supposed vote to accept was about as credible as a Russian election.

Piecing together the information from various TAs and sympathetic teachers on the demonstration we found that the ballot was not conducted independently but by Unison itself. This is crucial since the union campaigned on the lines that this was the final offer, and all sorts of consequences would follow from rejecting it. There was no scrutiny by any TA of the count. Some TAs never got ballot papers. Most did, but some were blue and some were white (read into that what you like). During the balloting process the Unison regional organiser emailed at least one school to say that if anyone who had voted to reject, but now wanted to change their mind, then the Union could do it for them! How was that possible in a supposedly secret ballot?

Unison claimed in their press release that the majority for acceptance was “overwhelming” but no-one on the demonstration knew the actual figure. However the Counterfire people apparently do. They begin their defence of their case by telling us that for Unison members

… 62% voted to accept on a turnout of 57%. GMB TAs weren’t balloted as they accepted previous offers and ATL TAs voted to reject (56% on a 60% turnout).

Thus, even after all the jiggery pokery, only just about a third (720 out of more than 2000) of Unison members must have voted to accept. After this scandal more than one TA told us that they had resigned from Unison to join the ATL. We argued that the issue went beyond the “rogue union” or “bad leader” notion and that the TAs with their own organisation already in place needed to strike out independently of all unions. The TAs are well aware that Unison, which ignored them for months, would have done nothing if they had not done something for themselves.

At the end of the demonstration an SWP organiser produced a megaphone to announce, against all the evidence, that this was a victory for “union solidarity”. If anything, it is a testimony to the power of workers’ solidarity so long as it is not broken and undermined. A speaker for the Committee simply thanked everyone for coming out to support the struggle. Whether consciously or not she finished with the words “Its not finished yet!” which just happened to be the title of our leaflet. This may turn out to be right and the Durham TAs may not be alone. In Derby, TAs who accepted Unison’s decision to call off their all-out strike on the promise of a dubious deal with the Labour Council last summer, are now finding that they too have been conned.

The Action Committee is meeting this week but they need to call another mass meeting to see how far the rest want to resist in the light of the evidence that the ballot was rigged, elect a new committee, and take the fight for the 472 to the council (where Labour are losing seats with every council election). The Durham TAs deserve not just our sympathy but our active solidarity.

CWO (North East Section)

30 October 2017

Leaflet: Durham Teaching Assistants’ Struggle: Not Finished Yet!

The solidarity and determination of the Durham Teaching Assistants has been an inspiration to other workers throughout the North East and beyond. More than once they refused to accept a deal which would have meant a complete cave-in. At the mass meeting before the previous postal ballot the spirit was overwhelmingly “all for one” as speaker after speaker pointed out that the deal recommended by Unison would mean a pay cut for 25% of TAs.

Sold out by the Union

In July however, it was clear the struggle had reached a crossroads. Without a different approach and more active and wider support (from TAs in other areas and workers in other jobs) Durham Council could play a waiting game. The Activists Committee rightly had the confidence of the TAs because of their success in keeping the struggle solid. But there was still too much trust in the Labour council and the union despite their known cosy relationship. The idea that “the unions are us” has proved to be a dangerous illusion for the Durham Lions.

Now, after yet another ballot, Unison briefly announced (without giving us any figures):

Teaching assistants in Durham represented by UNISON, have today (Monday) overwhelmingly voted to accept the final offer made by the County Council to end the long-running dispute. (see northern.unison.org.uk)

Unison again campaigned heavily for a “yes” vote. The difference was that this time the TAs Committee appears not to have campaigned against the new offer. Why? Because even though the new offer is not substantially different from the last one:

Today’s acceptance will see the introduction of a new grading structure for teaching assistants and the setting up of a career progression board. (Unison)

And, course this “progression board” is supposed to be ‘fair’ because Unison’s teaching assistant representatives will sit on it. Many of the TAs and their supporters are sure that this is just window dressing to allow the Council to get away with the 40 weeks pay per year the TAs have been fighting against all along.

Sticking with Solidarity

Many TAs are still not ready to cave in. They want to keep solidarity with those facing wage cuts and for this they still have a lot of sympathy amongst the rest of the working class. But this time round they’ll need to step over the line and take full control of their own struggle. This means organising outside the unions. (Dare we say it, cancel those direct debits to the likes of Unison and put the money into a struggle fund.) It means holding local meetings to decide not just on tactics but to elect delegates to deal directly with the Council themselves. It also means that the Council must understand they are dealing with ALL the TAs in any discussions with any Committee. Any proposal should go back to the meetings and not wait for the union to initiate a secret ballot. Workers elsewhere have done this with some success. Anything else just plays into the strategy of those who want to do dirty backroom deals [Speaking of which, no-one should ever meet the employers on their own].

The TAs also deserve more than sympathy. They need the real solidarity of others, including teachers, who whilst often sympathetic, have largely kept their heads down.

All of us need to recognise each others’ battle as part of the same fight against a bankrupt system where real incomes have been declining for years. From the junior doctors to ‘gig’ economy drivers, the signs are of a growing will to resist. The TAs have certainly shown plenty of that. They have raised the spirits and hopes of many who have been downtrodden for too long. Now is not the time to give up the fight. Rather it’s time to break free from trade union and Labour ties. Once a wider movement develops where people on the ground are organising the struggle themselves they tend to overcome their fears and gain confidence from the struggle. Then we can take it onto a higher plane. Then we wage workers can think in terms of another world … It’s a long road, but as the old Chinese proverb says, every journey begins with a single step.

Communist Workers’ Organisation

26 October 2017

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Comments

Thanks for this report! (And shameful stuff from Counterfire - not surprising, of course, but a bit of a sick joke that they would presumably see their role as providing "leadership", helping workers develop socialist ideas that go beyond simple trade unionism and so on.)