Durham Teaching Assistants – Conned by the Labour Movement

The solidarity against injustice and the self-organisation of the Durham Teaching Assistants was, as we wrote in July, an inspiration to other workers throughout the North East and beyond (see leftcom.org). Their refusal to allow 25% of their colleagues to be sacrificed for the sake of a sordid deal with Durham County Council has deservedly earned the TAs (or Lions of Durham as they were labelled) the admiration of many.

In July however, we pointed to the dangers of their isolation and to the fact that, even after all the obstacles and dirty tricks played by the unions on them, there was still too much trust in both the union and Labour (which also happen to run Durham County Council). We warned that the leading members of the Committee who had the confidence of the TAs because of their success in keeping the struggle solid were too close to the union and the so-called Labour movement themselves. Some were members of left groups (i.e. Counterfire, the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Labour Left) who perpetuate the idea that “the unions are us”. The experience of the Durham Lions proves this not to be the case.

This week we learned that

"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)

Tellingly, no figures for the ballot have been given, but we do know that once again Unison campaigned heavily for a “yes” vote just as they did last June (see picture). The difference was that this time the TAs Committee appears not to have campaigned against the new offer. Why? Because although 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” will be wonderful 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. One TA wrote on Facebook explaining what the real game was in words which echoed our previous article.

"Teaching assistants have never been in the long term plan anyway. The conservatives have spoken in the past of TAs not being needed within the classroom and super class sizes! TAs are a vital part of a schools team. Most TAs currently are being employed on short term contracts on different contracts than others working alongside of them. Giving the same service for less money and more hours. It's just a waiting game now for cash strapped councils. Waiting for a natural reduction of the old type contracts due to staff being apathetic and leaving or due to retirement. When there are no people entering schools as TAs. the stress will multiply on an already stressful and under financed education system. The teachers will then find themselves in a untenable position concerning class sizes, stress and pay. It will be even more difficult to employ them. This is the start of a very slippery slope I fear!"

This comment sees that the problem for those working in education today is wider than just the TAs. When we asked TAs if they had had support from (for example) teachers they did not want to criticise others. They told us “they have their own problems and so are keeping their heads down”. It strikes you that this could be turned on its head. If others in the school system can see that the whole business is becoming ridiculous with unattainable targets etc then why not have a concerted fight of all to halt the inexorable decline the comment above so cogently puts.

The same Facebook page, which has been dormant since the summer, has exploded into life following this posting.

“From a concerned supporter.

When the Lions voted no last time it was in complete solidarity with those losing out. No one was to be left behind. Then came a vague promise of a toothless "progression board", a bunch of veiled threats from the union, the same old tiresome, repetitive bluster about the definitely final last offer ever, a scandalously worded ballot paper and suddenly 472 TAs have been lost to the whim of a council and union who have worked together to wear down, alarm and ultimately browbeat people into accepting their half-baked proposals.

And for what? Essentially for nothing more than the previous offer which was roundly rejected in solidarity with all those who were losing out.

I may be wrong and will hold my hands up if I am, but my instinct is that nothing whatsoever will come of this so-called progression board. DCC and their helpers in the union have their agreement now, and with a bunch of weasel words about 'decisive' ballots, Unison are already washing their hands of this. Their gamble: no one will remember the 472 in two years' time. Everyone will have moved on and the so-called "progression" board will also have been long forgotten.

As for vague promises that HTs won't enforce the additional hours, maybe we should run a sweepstake on just how many hours or days (I doubt it'll be as long as weeks) before the first HT says: "Show me where it says that in the contract you've just agreed"?

It's a huge pity its ended like this for the TAs, that DCC and Unison have together inflicted so much damage on so many poorly paid, undervalued, yet highly dedicated people.

Unison who, nauseatingly, will parade themselves in front of the media in the coming days as heroes, should pay a heavy price for their shameful abandoning of workers in favour of their cosy relationship with the bosses. Sharing offices, sharing morning coffee and even sharing DCC's email domain. Honest, the union really is working for you from its durham-dot-gov-dot-uk email address.

And as for DCC, they have consciously destroyed morale and trust in schools across the county for what? In order to satisfy a few bean counters and Blairites in County Hall? Eternal shame on them.

My solidarity remains with the Durham Lions and especially with the 472.”

According to the Unison press release about a “dispute [that has] has lasted far too long” 15% of TAs will still get a wage cut. That’s still getting on for 300 TAs. Most people, including some TAs, have responded in the same vein to “concerned supporter” on the Facebook page. One wrote

"Unions and management are like 2 peas in a pod. And pxss in the same pot."

Switching unions still leaves them in control

Most comments were in this vein but a few still thought that the “sellout” was just the case of one bad union, Unison, and urged the TAs to either join another or set up their own. What these commentators don’t get is that it is not a question of personalities or leadership or even the culture of this or that union. It is a function of the forms that any permanent body claiming to represent workers have to play in order to be in the game.

This is important today as many people believe that setting up “new” unions or rank and file unions or whatever will provide the necessary unity to enable us to stop the retreat of our class. However new unions quickly take on the shape of the old unions (with whom many of them work). Look at the press releases of (for example) the Independent Workers of Great Britain. They seek to employ permanent full-time officials and legal officers to get them better integrated into the system.

And this is the key. Any permanent body has to integrate itself into the state apparatus by accepting all the legal codes around organising. Without accepting this legal framework it cannot function. This forces them (whatever their will) into an anti-struggle position. They have to implement ballots and they have to give notice of strikes. They also are in competition with each other for members so they are always quick to sign in house agreements with employers to extend their membership (and thus their funds). It was surely no accident that, right next to the announcement that the TAs had voted to accept the latest offer, Unison was boasting of a deal it had signed with a school academy trust to be the “recognised” union.

It is understandable in today’s climate why many think that any form of unity is what’s needed. But we need class unity, not the dubious services of an organisation which takes our membership dues which pay for full-time officials but rarely, if ever, pays strike pay. The dues are already going into the pension funds of bureaucrats or to supporting the Labour Party or paying off interest on union debts. Class unity means forming struggle organisations on the ground where they are needed outside of the legal framework which the state tries to impose on us. If you have active, engaged solidarity of the workforce (as the TAs had), if you have the solidarity beyond the workforce (and we don’t mean by this the reassuring but empty words of support from the likes of Corbyn and Ken Loach at the “Big Meeting” [aka Durham Miners Gala]), you don’t need any union negotiator stepping in to halt the struggle. That seems to be the lesson of a battle which, when it was going on, gave so many of us so much heart.


Collage taken from


Friday, October 20, 2017


The Durham experience is the reality of the leftists' agenda to restrict workers' organisation within the Unions and to vote for Labour Councillors. Both wings sit with each other in the Town Hall admin. offices and share strategies to support each other at countless Labour Movement Committees. The agreements to recognise and fund Convenors provides an alternative career structure with an open valve arrangement to the paid Officers' posts and allowing crossovers from the Unions to Councillor and MP positions.

In the Councils and other parts of "the Public sector" the Labourists know exactly how to play divide and rule against the workers. The Durham story, where different Unions play "good cop, bad cop", is very like the games they played as they colluded to rip apart the jobs and services in Sheffield Council Housing during 2015 and 2016.

Hey, just a few thoughts/comments/suggestions:

1) to give credit where it's due, that collage was actually the work of one of the TAs, Zana1518 on twitter: twitter.com They made a number of images expressing discontent with Unison's actions - the caption on this one pretty much says it all, really: twitter.com

2) while taking into account what you say about the limitations of "alternative unions" and so on, do you think there's anything to be said about the fact that the ATL/NEU also represents some Durham TAs and has rejected the deal? Certainly in the long run the ATL/NEU aren't any more trustworthy than Unison are, but could the fact that there's still an official dispute going on give a bit of cover and breathing room for anti-deal elements among the TAs to regroup, or is that just me being over-optimistic and in denial about the fact that it's over? (That's not one of those annoyingly smug rhetorical questions where I'm trying to lead you to the right answer or anything, I'm genuinely not certain here.) On that note, I see that there was a TAs meeting on Friday called by the NEU (see twitter.com ) - do you have any idea if anything came out of that? Again, without having any particular love for the unions, I think the fact that there was a meeting for TAs who've rejected the deal is important.

3) you may well have seen this already, but there's an event in solidarity with the 472 planned for Thursday 26th October: facebook.com At the risk of stating the obvious, I think it's really important for people to get down there - I'm sure you don't need me to point this out, but those TAs who are rejecting the deal deserve our full solidarity.

4) on a more general note, I'd be really interested to read a full analysis of the roles played by the "grassroots unions" like the UVW/IWGB in recent years (I guess that that's probably something that would have to be written by a London person, or at least someone in contact with a London person?) Do you think that the bureaucratic/legalistic/anti-struggle tendencies in these organisations have already played a demobilising role in the struggles they're involved with, or is it more that you think the logic of their role means that those tendencies will inevitably become more developed in future, even if they haven't been openly expressed yet?

Thanks a lot nothingiseverlost - we had not checked twitter so we did not know of the links or events connected to them. And don't know why we did not see Zana's posts on the TA Fb page. We will be at the solidarity event in Durham. Our London comrades have been following the struggles over the last year or more and have been on the picket lines talking to/getting to know the rank and file workers so hopefully something may come of this.

Ah cheers. Think Zana's posts were just on twitter so that might explain why you'd not seen them. Also potentially worth keeping your eye on - I don't know if the CWO has anyone in that part of the Midlands, but it appears that the Derby TAs dispute, which never achieved the same level of semi-independence and seemed to have been killed off by Unison ages ago, is now back on, although again the only information I have on it is through the official Unison site: derbycityunison.co.uk I don't know how much potential there is for the dispute to be re-started after having been put on hold for so many months, but if there is any chance for these "local" issues to link up with each other directly, that could be a promising step...

Thanks again. Checked it out and Unison is bleating that they called off the (all out) strikes because they thought the Council would negotiate but hasn't. But they are now calling for strikes of TAs but only in special schools who have refused to talk to Unison! All TAs in Derby have the same issues but Unison is dividing them.

Yep - the first time I'd read that post, I actually managed to misinterpret it as meaning that the TAs in those schools had had enough of Unison and were refusing to talk to them, but no such luck (so far).

Demo today was about 70-80. Great deal of support from passing ambulances, fire engines, buses and cars and other council workers. Scandalous stories about the rigged ballot. Some fantastic people involved. More next post.

Good to hear - I was thinking 70-80 doesn't sound that big compared to what some of the past mobilisations have been like, but suppose a weekday daytime demo, especially one called at such short notice and in response to a direct attempt at demobilisation from the unions, is always going to have its turnout suppressed somewhat. Will be interested to see a fuller report.