More than a strike: Durham TAs should celebrate their wins

While I understand the focus on strike action (and that some people are disappointed that one strike day been called off and others are likely to be called off next week to make way for negotiation), I think this is slightly missing the point about the Durham Teaching Assistants dispute on two scores:

Firstly, the point of any industrial action and the campaigning that goes with it is to get your employer to the negotiating table. It’s almost unheard of for that action to bring a complete surrender, but Durham County Council, who said that they couldn’t regrade one group of staff, who said that they were bound by equality legislation and who said that they had made their last offer, were dragged kicking and screaming to the negotiating table this week, making significant concessions on dismissal notices and timescales along the way. There’s still vigilance needed, because Durham County Council have hardly shown themselves to be a trustworthy employer over the last year, especially in terms of this dispute. And, of course, they have attempted to couch it in legalistic language which makes their climbdown look less drastic, but compared to where we were just a couple of months ago, these are major steps forward, achieved almost entirely by the campaign run by a grassroots TA committee.

 
Secondly, though, the focus on strike action is misunderstanding the significance of the Durham Teaching Assistants campaign – what is different about it and why it has achieved so much in such a short timescale, and with only four days industrial action so far. That’s because their real leverage was never about the actual withdrawal of labour. Ultimately, schools can deal with a certain amount of disruption, albeit damaging to the children’s welfare and education. But what is really significant about the Teaching Assistants isn’t the fact that they were prepared to strike, but that they built an enormous, visible and hugely engaging public campaign, which backed the council into a corner on a number of levels.

 
That’s been about high profile and well organised public demos; it’s been about a constant online presence through social media; about people meeting together at the Miners’ Hall, Redhills and in cluster groups all over the county; it’s been about getting the message out to the country and getting solidarity back in spades; it’s been about getting the TAs story in the national and local media; it’s been about pressurising the councillors, publicly and internally via the Labour Party.

 
Unlike many other union campaigns, the strikes are not the decisive factor. It’s the collective efforts of all the TAs in building this almighty, in-your-face, campaign which has made the difference: and that’s why, I believe, it has been such a success (where many other similar disputes have failed to get a result). None of that campaigning needs to stop, nor should it. And if people keep united and in touch with each other, keep organising together and maintain this incredible united front, the TA campaign will be ready to whip up a storm again, including strike action, when needed. That also includes putting pressure on Unison and their regional officials if needed.

 
A big, underestimated factor in industrial disputes and wider campaigning is confidence. When people see the results of their actions, their confidence increases and they feel they can take on the world. Quite often, we forget to celebrate our wins, whether they are big or small ones. Forgetting to do that can lead to despondency or negativity, which is the opposite of what the #ValueUs campaign has been about. This is no substitute for bring realistic. We can’t go around calling defeats victories, but we do need to understand the big picture. To do that, we need to be confident and strong – about what we’ve achieved and what we can do again. That’s why, in my opinion, it was important to celebrate what the campaign had won in dragging DCC back to the negotiating table over the last week, all the time warning that this isn’t the end, only one battle in the war. 

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Durham Labour members move to distance themselves from Durham County Council on the TA dispute

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Pressure piles on Durham County Council as the local Labour Party comes out in support of the Teaching Assistants and its leader Jeremy Corbyn in calling for Labour councillors to “get it sorted”

In an extraordinary week for the Labour Party in County Durham, four Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) have passed motions in support of the Teaching Assistants, calling for a reopening of negotiations and the withdrawal of the threat of redundancies. 

The clash with the TAs has caused divisions within the Labour Party over a number of months, with the Labour Group under council leader Simon Henig insisting that the party’s councillors have no choice but to impose new contracts on the Teaching Assistants, resulting in a potential 23% pay cut, while many of the party’s grassroots members have joined the TAs on picket lines and demonstrations which have taken place all over the county. The proposals mean that over 2,000 TAs will be sacked and re-engaged at the turn of the year. 

For several months, the Teaching Assistants have mounted a visible and highly effective campaign, which has garnered support far and wide, including from local Labour Party members. Over the weekend the Labour Party in North West Durham, City of Durham, Darlington and Blaydon formally pledged their support for the Teaching Assistants, agreeing motions asking that the negotiations be reopened and the redundancy notices withdrawn. Several prospective Labour councillors were part of the group in County Durham who initiated the action.

 It is expected that other local party groups will make similar pleas in the coming days. Over the weekend, hundreds of activists, including Labour members from every constituency in County Durham, also signed a letter produced by Durham Labour Left (a coalition including Red Labour and Momentum amongst others) in protest at the Council’s actions.

During the debate at County Hall on Saturday, attended by almost 80 local party members from within the City of Durham constituency, it became clear that the Council’s position was in a tiny minority. Not a single councillor was prepared to speak up in favour of the Labour Council’s argument. It was evident that some councillors had not even been presented with the full facts of the dispute in their briefings from council officers. In the end, the motion in support of the TAs passed without any dissenting voices, though a few councillors did abstain.

The desire to end this dispute stretches from the grassroots of the party right to the top. In July, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn came to the Gala and implored Durham County Council to “get it sorted”. On Friday several local Labour MP’s visited Simon Henig seeking a solution. 

With the leader, many of the regions MPs and a huge majority of the members of the regional Labour Party urging Labour councillors to settle, pressure on Durham County Council is mounting. The Council is now in a very difficult position, unable to win the support of its own party, the public or parents at the schools affected by strike action. 

TA activist Helen Cook, who spoke at the meeting, said:

“The people in that room had come there to hear the facts with an open mind and were very interested in what we had to say. The one thing that disappointed me was that no one from council who had any responsibility for this decision was there to defend it. Obviously we were over the moon with the result.”

The disagreement has highlighted the divide between the local party establishment and the rest of Labour Party, many of whom have been re-energised since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. The aim of that movement is to return the party to its roots in the community. There’s very little, if any, support for the Council’s position on the TA dispute, even from longstanding Labour members. There’s a real feeling that the councillors have got it wrong, and quite frankly, not to support the Teaching Assistants is a betrayal of the proud traditions of the Labour movement and it’s party.

Megan Charlton, a leading member of the TAs campaign committee said yesterday:

“There was not a single voice in support of the Council’s actions but many voices in support of our campaign. It is difficult to see how a Labour council can continue to ignore the opinions of its leader, of its members and of the parents and public of County Durham. Please listen to them and to us and get it sorted.”

Notes

1. The two motions which passed unanimously at the City of Durham all member meeting on Saturday the 26th November read:

From Sherburn and District Branch

“This Constituency asks both Durham County Council to re-open negotiations with the Teachers Assistants and their Trade Unions. We encourage both parties to negotiate in good faith to reach an acceptable agreement which recognises due to vicious Tory Government cuts the serious financial situation of the Council that at the current time the Council could not afford to meet equal pay claims for other staff; that the Teaching Assistants currently employed should be protected so they would be left in no worse financial position and this should be achieved by the Leader of Durham County Council working with recognised trade unions to agree a process for a collective regarding to be undertaken so that a fair and transparent process is adhered to.

We agree that the City of Durham CLP will encourage the MP for City of Durham and other County Durham MPs to work with recognised trade unions to explore and negotiated national terms and conditions for teaching assistants. We further agree to ask the aforesaid MPs to approach the relevant minister to review the Equal Pay and associated Equality legislation to ensure that any unintended negative impacts resulting in the said legislation resulting in low paid workers suffering unnecessary curtailments in their salaries, that those lines in the Act be removed or amended”

From Witton Gilbert Branch: “City of Durham CLP calls upon the council to further engage in negotiations with Teaching Assistants’ Unions to agree a process for collective regrading which ensures that the unique contribution Teaching Assistants make to children’s lives is valued and that no TA’s are left in a worse financial position.”

An addendum was also moved and unanimously agreed from the floor, which called for Durham County Council to pause the threat of dismissal.

2. Durham Labour Left is an informal coalition of Labour Party members who have come together to support the Teaching Assistants and socialist policies within the Labour Party. Their network includes members of Momentum, Red Labour, trade union and community activists as well as several prospective Labour councillors. Their Facebook page can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/DurhamLabourLeft/

3. Unison members voted by 93% to support strike action in October, while the ATL union voted by 84%.

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Pat McIntyre: a short tribute

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I was sitting in a pub with Charlotte, my wife, when I got the news that Pat McIntyre had died. I knew that she’d been ill, obviously. Everyone knew that, but somehow it felt like a devastating blow, a real shock. I couldn’t help myself as tears welled up in my eyes. Because, right up until the end, Pat was someone full of life, full of ideas, strategies, songs and articles – things that she wanted to do, that we should all do. She wasn’t supposed to leave us. Not at the tender age of 81!

I first met Pat through the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign in Durham, around the same time as I started working for the TUC in 2007. She was absolutely committed to that cause, as she was the Peace Movement. Her absolute honesty and humanity shone through, whether she was addressing a crowd or speaking to you one-to-one. I later got to know her better, principally through my involvement with Vin because of the People’s Bookshop connection, but also through local Labour Party activism. I would pop around to the McIntyre’s to pick up some books, and still be there 3 hours later, listening to Pat’s latest insights and enthusiasms. I didn’t regret it for a minute. There was something magnetic about Pat when she started to speak.

Pat was always an educator and took that role seriously. On numerous occasions, when talking to my colleague Paul Simpson about Red Labour, we would mention Pat as an example of the wealth of knowledge and experience that we have in Durham City, on our doorstep – and what a terrible waste it would be not to extract as much of that knowledge as possible as we started to organise a new chapter in the left’s history. Pat had done pretty much everything, politically speaking, and it showed. Now it was her turn to pass on her experience. I became a fan of her blog, Granny Grumble, which she started writing in 2010, and where she laid waste to conniving Tories and pompous Blairites in equal measure.

I remember her determination to get to the Gaza demonstration in the Market Square in November 2012. In the freezing cold, and obviously suffering with her long-term illness, she nevertheless glided down in her wheelchair and I remember her justified outrage at Israel’s bombing which has caused such an incredible number of innocent deaths and unspeakable suffering. I remember watching her and Florence Anderson talking feverishly and being overcome with admiration for another generation who really knew how to fight. Florence and Pat had been right at the forefront of the Miners’ Solidarity campaign in 1984-5.

More recently, I witnessed the fiery Pat in action at the Labour Party all member campaign meeting at County Hall, Durham in June. Being ignored by the chair and having to sit through some rather lengthy “contributions” from some of the male participants in the council chamber, Pat prefaced her speech by telling the chair exactly how long she was going to speak for, considering how long the others had been allowed to go on for. She then gave a typically brilliant analysis of the roots of the Brexit vote and the tasks that lay ahead.

Pat was an inspiration to me and so many of us involved in Labour politics in Durham. Just watching her speak was an experience – all that knowledge and determination, which wasn’t diminished at all by her illness. Of course, Pat was part of a double act, and I was and am in awe, not just of Vin and Pat’s politics, but their relationship too. Maybe that was at the core of it, and that relationship gave Pat the confidence to be the activist we all admired so much.

I realise that I have missed a lot of Pat’s ‘Greatest Hits’ – literally and metaphorically. Coming into it late, I rely on what numerous other socialists have told me, but it all rings true: that she was a brilliant mind, a truly great speech maker and organiser of the highest calibre. Everyone you meet in and around Durham City gushes about Pat – and that is an incredible legacy to leave behind. If we want to know how to do principled, passionate and practical politics, we have our model.

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A short story about the Russian Revolution.

This may be an allegory:

I sometimes wonder if there was a point in the October Revolution when a group of young Bolsheviks got pissed off with Lenin’s hectoring and decided to coast it. You can just imagine them meeting in freezing huddles and saying: “You know, the man’s a bore – all these perspectives, these bloody Soviet thingys, organising this, voting on that. Seriously who can be arsed? Haven’t we got the proletariat to do all these tasks? Who fancies the pub?”. And on their way to the BrewDog, they spot Trotsky giving it what for on a street corner. “Nerd!” one of them shouts. “God, he’s such an arsehole” one of them mutters. They make it to the pub, and the mood instantly picks up, because guess who’s sitting there, at the bar, and ready to get the round in? Only f**king Joe Stalin. What a lad. Love that guy.

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The Durham Teaching Assistant dispute and the Labour Group: some answers

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On Thursday evening, all Labour Party members in the Durham City constituency were circulated with a ‘briefing’ from Councillor Maria Plews, outlining Durham County Council’s case on the Teaching Assistants dispute. 

I felt that, as this wasn’t local Labour Party policy, but a defence of a controversial, unpopular and damaging policy (see my blog piece from last week), it should not have gone out from the official local party channels, at least not without a right to reply. I’m not sure who this was authored by, but as it was sent to me by her, I emailed Maria back to ask if a right to reply could be arranged, but received no reply. 

So, with the help of Megan Charlton, one of the lead activists in the TAs campaign to fight council pay cuts of up to 23%, we put together some answers of our own. I will update you if Councillor Plews gets back to me about the right to reply, but to be honest, I’m not holding my breath. 

Durham County Council (DCC)’s points are taken first. Our answers (taken point by point) then follow, in bold. 

There is some important context, which I touched on in the last blog piece: Unison are now very much on board with the campaign, and that is to be welcomed, but that hasn’t always been the case. Politely speaking, the TA activists and their union have been on a “journey”. So, the TA campaign in Durham has been built from the ground up, with the support, organisation and creativity of hundreds of Teaching Assistants across the county. That has changed the whole nature of the dispute, so some of the historical actions of the Durham Unison branch and region are of little relevance to the argument about the current state of the dispute. Politically and industrially speaking, we’re in a different place. And that’s all thanks to the TAs themselves:
 

Point 1 (DCC)

BRIEFING ON TEACHING ASSISTANTS

Since 2004 Durham County Council Teaching Assistants have had a local agreement which meant that they were contracted to work 32.5 hours per week and 39 weeks per year, term-time only. However, the vast majority of Teaching Assistants were paid for 37 hours per week and had no deductions from their salaries, which are spread over the 12 months into equal payments, to account for their term-time only working and therefore were paid whole-time. Basically, this means the majority of Teaching Assistants in County Durham receive 4.5 hours pay per week that they are not contracted to work for and 13 weeks per year paid holidays.

Answer:

This is a misrepresentation of the history regarding school support staff. Nursery Nurses were already changed to Term Time Only working in the 1970’s (the Teaching Assistants committee has spoken to TAs who remember this and the secretary of Unison’s local authority branch has confirmed this is the case). Because of this, Teaching Assistants are paid a salary which is divided into 12 equal parts.

‘Local agreement …’ This implies that the Teaching Assistants got a pay rise or they reduced our hours in 2004. Neither of these things happened. The only thing that changed was that Durham County Council rationalised the job titles so that everyone became Teaching Assistants rather than Nursery Nurses, Support Assistants etc. They also increased duties and requirements for minimum qualifications required for the different levels. This was in response to national agreement on workload for teachers and led to an HLTA role being created, so that TAs could be used to teach whole classes when the new PPA (Planning, preparation, assessment) time of half a day a week for all teachers was introduced in 2005. Durham County Council made lots of noise at the time about how it wanted to create a professional, highly-trained workforce of TAs to drive up standards in schools (which the TAs believe has happened since then).


Point 2 (DCC):


This situation creates an inequality to the rest of our employees who can be working more than half a day per week and 6.5 weeks per year more than a Teaching Assistant. Once this inequality was brought to our attention Durham County Council took legal advice from a top Employment Law specialist, as did UNISON via Thompsons Solicitors.  Both were of the same opinion, which was that Durham County Council was at significant risk of Equal Pay Claims.  That is the main reason we are taking this action.

Answer:

‘Once this inequality was brought to our attention’? This issue was dealt with in Barnet (and other councils) as long ago as 2004. Durham County Council didn’t deal with it back then (or during Single Status Job Evaluation in 2012), which was either deliberate (in which case the chickens are certainly coming home to roost now) or not, which suggests incompetence.

Point 3 (DCC):

With regard to the suggestion of re-grading, in 2012 Durham County Council undertook a council wide Job Evaluation Process. All Teaching Assistants were part of this, and every job was graded accordingly.  If any Teaching Assistant feels their role has changed significantly since that process was undertaken then both the Trade Unions and ourselves have encouraged them to apply for a re-grading. Whilst a few Teaching Assistants have undertaken this process, the vast majority have not. No Trade Union has requested that we carry out an exclusive regrading process of the Teaching Assistants as they are aware that this legally would not be possible, all staff would have to be included in that process as if they weren’t a further inequality would be created. Once again this has been confirmed by the Employment Law specialists.

Answer:

The Job Evaluation undertaken in 2012 was a farce. Most Teaching Assistants were totally unaware of what was going on and weren’t consulted. They certainly didn’t understand the repercussions of what the unions advised them to sign up to. Many TAs lost the £1200 SEN allowance and weren’t even informed. They found out when they got their new pay slips. TAs who did appeal because, for example, they were given the lowest possible score for emotional demands when they worked with vulnerable children or for physical demands when they worked in a special school, found that those scores were increased but others were decreased so that they stayed on the same overall score. Alan Napier told representatives of the TA committee in July that we were ‘sold down the river’ by the unions in 2012. The branch secretary of Durham Unison Local Authority told the TAs that Term Time Only working was deliberately ignored at the time and it was ‘pushed into the long grass’ to be dealt with later as it would be politically unacceptable to take even more money off us when so many were already losing £1200.

There has been conflicting advice about regrading. Some committee members have been advised by senior Unison staff that it is perfectly possible, legally, to regrade one group of staff.

‘Durham County Council and unions encouraged TAs to ask Head Teachers for individual regrading if they felt their grade was too low’. This creates more, not less, inequality as Head Teachers who value their TAs regrade, others do not (or their budget does not allow them to). Human Resources does not hold any TA contracts; it is left up to individual schools to look at generic job record documents and rewrite them to suit the school. This has led to huge inequalities with TAs in different schools – or often the same school – doing the same job on different grades. Nobody at HR checks that the job descriptions drawn up by schools fit the role and, therefore, the pay grade. In other councils (e.g. Northumberland) HR writes the job descriptions, and Head Teachers are not allowed to change them.

So, when the briefing document goes on to say ‘if any TA feels their role has changed significantly since that process was undertaken then both the Trade Unions and ourselves have encouraged them to apply for a re-grading’, they should be aware that all TAs roles have changed significantly since then. Now Teaching Assistants are timetabled for every minute of the day with interventions, pastoral support, whole class teaching – not to mention the planning, assessment, reports and marking.

In other councils, Teaching Assistants are paid substantially higher, e.g. Stockton, Darlington a Level 3 TA earns £20,000-23,000. This is then made pro rata for term time only but still comes out higher than a Durham TA earning £16,500-18,500 and that is supposedly for 52 weeks (the amount will be substantially less if this goes through).

Point 4 (DCC):

Durham County Council HR and Education Teams have worked with all Heads and Chairs of Governors throughout this process and as a result all but three schools in the county have offered their Teaching Assistants 37 hours per week, or pro-rata equivalent if they are on part-time contracts. This effectively means if a Teaching Assistant choses to work the hours they have been getting paid for historically then there will be no decrease in salary only in holiday payment.

Answer:

Yes, most schools have offered extra hours. Firstly, some TAs can’t do them because of family commitments. Secondly, others have second jobs, so if they chose extra hours to reduce pay loss, they wouldn’t be able to do the other job and would lose even more money (this includes working in breakfast and after school care). Thirdly, Teaching Assistants were pressured into making a decision at very short notice about whether to accept the extra hours despite never having been given a quote on how much they would be paid if they stayed on their current hours. Durham County Council put a ‘net pay calculator’ online (in the form of an excel spreadsheet) for the Teaching Assistants to work it out for themselves, but it was very confusing and not many people used it.

The sentence about ‘no decrease in salary only in holiday payment’ is a total misrepresentation. Technically, if you compare a term time week with a term time week and you work an extra 4.5 hours, there is no decrease. But as TAs will still be paid a salary divided into 12 equal parts, they will be losing substantial amounts of money despite working extra hours –  one colleague who is full time L3 enhanced will lose £1993.90 a year despite working extra 175.5 hours. Surely that amounts to a pay loss?


Point 5 (DCC):

Throughout this process Durham County Council officers and politicians have met with Trade Unions at least once a week, undertaken multiple consultations, doubled our compensation offer to cover two years and delayed implementation of the changes to term-time only pay from January 2017 to April 2017.

At a meeting, initiated and arranged by Durham County Council, in July with ACAS our final offer was recognised by both the unions and ACAS as being the best that could be achieved.

Answer:

Durham County Council has carried out three consultations – but managed to listen to nobody. The only changes they have made is to the timescale of implementing the pay cuts – what they call ‘compensation’. So ‘doubled our compensation’ means the pay cuts are delayed for 2 years instead of 1. Their final proposal being recognised by unions and ACAS as ‘the best that could be achieved’ misses off the words ‘by negotiation’ at the end. The TAs have taken this up as an industrial dispute, backed by a mass campaign, because it is fundamentally unfair.

Point 6 (DCC):

Two Trade Unions have accepted our final offer, two have not and 40% of the Teaching Assistants have voted for Industrial Action. However, should those unions who are currently in dispute with the council wish to approach us and re-open discussion about our final offer then we remain open to that. To date neither union has.

Answer:

This part of the statement is shockingly misleading, unworthy of a Labour group which will contain many experienced trade union members. Yes, two trade unions have accepted the offer. One is the GMB with approximately 200 members. The other is Unite with 1 (one) member. The two that rejected the offer are Unison (1755 members) and ATL (122 members). These voted with a combined turnout of 64% with a 92% vote for strike action.

Technically, the figure of 40% of TAs voting to strike is correct but it is hugely and deliberately misleading. The figure includes TAs who were NOT asked if they wanted to strike (GMB, Unite and non-union members). Of the TAs who were balloted, 59% voted to strike. Of the TAs who voted, 92% voted to strike.


Point 7 (DCC):

Since 1 June 2016 Durham County Council has been recruiting on the terms and conditions it is proposing to existing Teaching Assistants; i.e. 37 hours per week and term time only.  There has been no difficulty in filling these posts with an average of more than 50 applications per post.

Answer:

It would be interesting to know the calibre, qualifications, training and experience of the TAs that DCC have recruited since June 2016. It would also be interesting to know the rates of sickness for TAs this year compared to last year and the year before. The committee know of many TAs who are off with stress because of the enormous pressure of worrying about their jobs and their future (as well as the future of the children they support). Others have felt so desperate and demoralised that they have given up and left their jobs.

Point 8 (DCC):

Durham County Council does value the work undertaken by Teaching Assistants, however, we also value the rest of our workforce who also work tirelessly to deliver services for the public and have a duty of care to them too.

Durham County Council is already in receipt of Equal Pay Claims which use Teaching Assistants as a comparator.

Answer:

Durham County Council may well be in receipt of Equal Pay Claims which use TAs as a comparator but they weren’t when this started. It is our understanding that many TAs have equal pay claims lodged with their unions, going back for years and still not dealt with.

Finally, a question for all Labour Party members: ‘If you had a contract which stated your salary and working hours for the job you do, would you accept carrying on with the SAME job for 23% less pay? Or work EXTRA hours for 10% less pay?’

In this dispute, Durham County Council are like any other employer. They are not a ‘special case’. When they make decisions which impact adversely on workers, their families and their communities, they can expect a fight, just as any private employer would. And these aren’t just any cuts – these are life changing. Many of the worst paid public sector workers in the country, right here in our county, are facing pay cuts that will leave them in dire poverty. For many of the Teaching Assistants, this is what it’s about. They didn’t want this dispute, they didn’t choose this fight – but because it is a fight for their lives, it’s sure as hell isn’t going away. 

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It’s now or never: the politics behind the Durham Teaching Assistants dispute

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Durham Teaching Assistants will stage a two day strike this week, beginning on Tuesday the 8th of November. For many, it will be the first time they have taken strike action. Amongst the wider public, the reaction to the dispute between Durham’s Labour council and a group of Teaching Assistants numbering over 2000 has mostly been one of horror. Words like ‘shocked’ and ‘horrified’ have been used to describe the actions of Durham County Council (DCC), who in October 2015 thought it was ultimately acceptable to hand 2700 poorly paid Teaching Assistants redundancy notices and propose to re-hire them on inferior terms, which would mean a 23% pay cut in some cases. The intention was to rush this through, and have it all done and dusted by October 2016, but the initial reaction of the Teaching Assistants themselves put paid to this. So instead, the doomsday scenario was put back to New Year’s Eve, 2016, with new contracts coming into force on New Year’s Day 2017. To those of us who were local members of the Labour Party and had been long-term watchers of the Labour Group at Durham County Council, none of this was shocking at all. In fact, it was not even much of a surprise, being part of a longer, more established pattern. After all, this was a group of councillors who had presided over leisure centre closures, the ‘outsourcing’ of community centres to the voluntary sector, the closure of care homes and most recently, the sale of housing stock.

Now, the standard answer from those councillors who were making these decisions since 2010 (those who bothered to give an answer at all) was this: why blame us, when this is caused by Tory and Coalition Government austerity, citing the devastating cuts to council budgets which has meant that councils like Durham have had to find over £200m in savings. You should be turning your fire on the Tories, they’d say. There’s certainly a great deal of truth in this, but in fact the people who they were talking to were normally doing exactly that: campaigning against austerity measures, the privatisation of the NHS, the Bedroom Tax, public sector pay freezes and the destruction of our public services. Unions organised mass demonstrations, strikes were held and organisations like UK Uncut and the Coalition of Resistance shone the light on tax avoiders such as Vodafone and Starbucks. The only problem was, we rarely saw our Labour councillors taking up the struggle by our sides. Instead, they were busy making ‘tough decisions’, led by “modernising” council leaders like Nick Forbes, dubbed ‘King of Cuts’ at Newcastle, and Simon Henig, the slick, Blairite head of the Labour group at DCC.

In many ways, this was the pre-Corbyn Labour Party in microcosm, and the Labour group at Durham County Council were part of a much bigger issue: a party which had become both complacent and confused about what it stood for. At the top, at national and regional level, it had become almost ‘managerial’ after two decades of Blairite dominance of all the representative functions of the Labour Party. The biggest and clearest manifestation of this was of course in Scotland, where the Scottish Labour Party collapsed almost overnight under the weight of the Referendum campaign. But although the crisis occurred between the Referendum vote and the General Election vote of May 2015, the seeds of the Scottish Party’s decline had been sown by (a) the absolute stranglehold that the New Labour machine had over the party, to the extent that it was seen as a place for Blairites to develop their portfolios, not a democratic, grassroots party and (b) the complacency of the more traditional membership, the councillors and the local hierarchies who believed the Scottish working class had nowhere else to go.

So, what has that got to do with Durham County Council, their Labour Group and the Teaching Assistants dispute? Well, in the 2013 local elections, the Labour Party won a huge majority in the local elections, mainly at the expense of the collapse of the LibDem vote (to say that their coalition deal with the Tories didn’t go down well in the North East would be an understatement of a whopping kind). In local elections, where turnout is low, small changes in voting can make a big difference and the result in 2013 was that the Labour representation was swelled to 94, one of the largest Labour groups in the country. At the same time, after decades under New Labour, the system of local government had become more centralised, with power concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people, mainly the leader, those with cabinet portfolios and their advisors. With councillors being chosen by local parties and normally without much challenge, those 94 were mostly loyal, longstanding members of the party. So, the huge majority that Labour had locally played straight into Simon Henig’s hand. Many of those councillors would never think to defy the whip, instead seeing their role at a very local level, to serve their community. When it came to those ‘tough decisions’, they were likely to go along with whatever Henig and the cabinet decided, advised strongly by unelected, council officers.

This might explain why, when faced with legal advice that they would in breach of equal pay legislation if they didn’t tackle Teaching Assistant’s contracts, many of the councillors waved it through, trusting the leader and those around him. By this time, the Labour Party outside County Hall was starting to change. Jeremy Corbyn had been elected leader, ‘austerity lite’ was being dumped and a newly energised party membership, massively enlarged by the leadership election, were talking of the Labour Party as a ‘social movement’ again, going back to its roots as a party of the working class. None, or very little of this, penetrated the walls of County Hall. When Corbyn was searching for councillor endorsements in the 2015 leadership campaign, only a tiny handful came from Durham County councillors.

When I first met the Teaching Assistants, not much of this internal party politics meant much to them, quite understandably. But they were angry with the Labour Party. Many of the key activists had historical family ties to the party, but they felt let down, betrayed by the disregard they had been shown by the Labour councillors. I listened as they told me that many of the councillors had a view of the TA role which entailed washing paint pots. To them, it showed how out of touch they were with the changing nature of schools, but also that they must be divorced from their communities. After all, if there are 2,700 Teaching Assistants in County Durham, it wouldn’t take much for a councillor to bump into one or two if they were doing their job. Instead, the vast majority of Labour councillors went along with the plan set out by the Labour group leader, the officers and the legal advice they were given. Of course, no one is arguing that councillors should ignore their elected group leader or legal advice, but first and foremost they should represent their communities – as that is what they are there to do.

It’s clear to me that Labour councillors failed at their fundamental task, which is to represent their constituents. How could they have done it better? Well, if that job of representation had been upper most in their mind, they would have paused proceedings and consulted with the Teaching Assistants directly, individually and in groups. They would have engaged with their trade unions, not in an underhand, backroom way, trying to get a deal as soon as possible (relying on the overly cosy relationship that had developed between union officers and councillors), but in a transparent way that would have involved the TAs directly too. They would have opened up a discussion about alternatives, looking at Barnet Council, for instance, where a strong, organised Unison branch under secretary John Burgess, had managed to mitigate many of the effects of similar cuts through regrading. All this was available to them, yet they effectively buried their heads in the sand and appeared to sulk at the first criticism, especially from Labour Party members. That’s not good enough as our representatives.

When the Trades Council, of which I’m secretary, first got involved in helping the TAs, the hostility which we faced was palpable. That’s pretty ironic, looking back at it. Through the Trades Council’s involvement, I believe that we were able to pull the situation back from one which would have benefited Labour’s opponents most – and quite possibly turned the campaign into a political vehicle for an anti-union, anti-Labour ideology. You can hardly blame the LibDems, UKIP and various independents (and even a few of the far right) from making hay when a Labour council is treating its key workers in this way. Not only are Teaching Assistants vitally important in terms of education in the County, but also exactly the people that Labour need to win back if they were to stop the kind of catastrophe we’ve seen in Scotland. By showing that Labour members and grassroots trade unionists were behind them, at least we could demonstrate that the situation was more complicated than that painted by UKIP and the like. Over the last year there has been a sea change, mainly because of the efforts of the Teaching Assistants themselves, but also because the internal dynamics of the Labour Party have been laid bare – shown most clearly when Jeremy Corbyn told DCC to ‘get this sorted’ at the Durham Miners’ Gala. When given the facts by a fantastic, vibrant, informed and social media savvy campaign, Labour members in Durham have chosen the side of the TAs, including many of the MPs (some under pressure, admittedly). Whereas a year ago, many of those same members were buying into Henig’s narrative that this was inevitable, that the council had no choice, that has all changed and hardly any party member outside of the council chamber supports their stance.

Now, coming to the crunch: what does this mean in terms of the strike action and the lead up to New Year’s Day 2017? Well, firstly, something all Labour councillors need to understand: they can’t possibly win this. That’s beyond doubt. Because of the publicity around the campaign, which has meant national media exposure on a weekly basis and a social media campaign which has been skilfully organised internally by TA’s from day one, and is now starting to project a clear message to thousands on a daily basis, Labour councillors are facing an extremely difficult situation. There are elections coming up in May, and presently, their name is mud. Maybe not in the circles that they move in, where no doubt they are still seen as the only realists, the saviours of the party. But outside that bubble, they are in deep, deep trouble. The clock is ticking, because it will soon be beyond salvage. They can’t win, because even if they did force the majority of TAs to sign the new contracts (with an inevitable large minority leaving the profession), they would always be remembered as the councillors who forced a huge, devastating, life changing pay cut on some of the worst paid, and most valued members of our community. Winning elections, where a couple of hundred votes can easily swing it, doesn’t quite fit with such a reputation.

So, what is to be done? It’s urgent, but actually quite simple. The Labour councillors who have some sort of survival instinct (and haven’t got their eye on their next career move) need to call a meeting with leader Simon Henig, his deputy Alan Napier, member for Corporate Services, Jane Brown and all those Cabinet members who’ve led this disastrous failure of a policy and demand that a solution is found as soon as possible. It may involve regrading – we don’t know exactly because that is part of the serious negotiations that we would all expect to have happened over the last year. If they had listened to those who advised this from the start, they wouldn’t be in the last chance saloon. But now they are, and what is required is not a stubborn refusal to see that reality, but an exit strategy. It’s there for the taking, if they want it and if they want to have any chance of saving the Labour group come May. But it demands of them that they challenge their leadership – something very few of them have done thus far. But you know, as the song goes, ‘It’s now or never…’

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Durham County Council: Get it sorted.

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If Durham County Council (DCC) don’t sort out this utter mess with the Durham Teaching Assistants (TAs), their Labour councillors are risking electoral catastrophe in May 2017. It’s that bad for the Labour Party, not just because of the votes of 2700 Teaching Assistants and their families, but because of the reputational damage the party are suffering in what should be their heartlands. It’s quite poignant thinking of the mess that Labour councillors have created just a few months after the death of Davey Hopper, the Durham Miners’ leader. The Durham Miners’ Association have always understood the meaning of “looking after your own”. They did it for years, with their lodges and what we now call “community organising”, but they just saw as second nature.

Recently, I’ve spotted exactly the same determination and rootedness amongst the TAs and it reminded me of what we’ve lost as a party. To say it can’t be combined with the modern Labour Party is rubbish. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been holding social media workshops in the People’s Bookshop. The enthusiasm and teamwork of the TAs social media team (the ‘Twitterati’ as we’re calling them) is something to behold. These are people who will give up every night of the week for this campaign, on top of their exhausting work and family responsibilities. But it would be nothing if they weren’t so concerned to represent their fellow TAs and their communities. This is old school organising, brought right up to date.

DCC just don’t get it. I’ve been told that the backlash from the TAs caught them on the hop. It shouldn’t have done. Imagine taking a 23% pay cut when you’re already on some of the lowest wages for Teaching Assistants anywhere in the country. If you corner an animal, it will fight back. And these women, as Aditya Chakrabortty has so eloquently explained, are lions. Durham’s Labour councillors have continually shown themselves to be incapable of learning the lessons. Yesterday, they added fuel to the fire of this dispute by sending out a deceitful letter to Heads which implied that 2 out of 3 unions had accepted the deal. In fact, one of those unions, Unite, has one member as a TA and the other, more or less 200 if local union officials are to be believed. Out of the other, the GMB, only 67 of those balloted voted to accept the compensation package. In contrast, over 1,300 Unison and ATL members voted to reject. If DCC want to portray this as a mandate to carry on with this ‘fire and rehire’ policy, then more fool them, but I have to warn them that if they carry on in this self-destructive mode, the consequences for the party locally will be dire.

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At a Durham City CLP campaign meeting in June I had the audacity to suggest that Durham County Councillors were out of touch with their communities. There was an audible gasp. Some of the councillors gathered at the meeting even formally objected that they had been “offended” by such words. I say that if those councillors had been in touch with their communities, they would never have approved these savage cuts to pay in the first place. I say that if they had been in touch with the roots of the community, and actually spoken to some of the TAs, they would have found a solution despite the legal obstacles. I say that if they really care about the long term welfare of the Labour Party, like I do, they will get on the phone to Simon Henig, the leader of the council and start objecting to this fait accompli, this ticking time bomb. Like the TA campaigners, they could show some independence and bravery – and challenge the technocrats who are making these disastrous decisions for them.

Ultimately, if councillors really want to continue to bury their heads in the sand and destroy the last few links we have with local communities up here in Durham, that’s up to them, but they won’t do it in my name. I have worked closely with these Teaching Assistants over the last 6 months and I can tell you they are exactly the sort of women who should be at the heart of the Labour Party. They are brilliant campaigners, they represent their communities superbly and they are fearless. I’d even venture as far as to say that they would make very good councillors themselves. There’s possibly even an MP in there, somewhere. You heard it here first.

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