Durham teaching assistants have been waging a campaign against Labour’s Durham County Council (DCC) since November 2015, when the council announced that we would face a 23 per cent cut in our already meagre wages. The campaign was led by us teaching assistants, with help from local activists. The Labour council attempted to make the pay cuts without taking responsibility for them, and ignoring the Labour Party’s pledges to ‘build a fairer Britain’ and ‘act to create a more equal society, boost the incomes of the poorest and close the gender pay gap’. DCC’s ‘keep it quiet’ strategy backfired because we dared to challenge them, and we did so loudly.
Last month, the council announced that it was suspending its plan to sack us on 31 December and rehire us on 1 January 2017 on new, lower paid contracts. And while we have only won the initial battle, not the war, many people seem to agree with our rejection of the council’s Thatcherite mantra: There Is No Alternative (TINA).
In November 2015, DCC informed us that it had no choice but to impose a 23 per cent pay cut (10 per cent if we were willing to work extra hours). As council officials told us again and again, they had acted upon legal advice. Apparently, there was a possibility of an equal-pay claim, though DCC refused to give any more details. It was not a budget-cutting exercise, they insisted.
I received a letter from DCC, as did 2,700 other teaching assistants, stating in council bureaucratese that there was a proposed variation to the Local Collective Agreement of 2004. Apparently, I was being paid for 37 hours per week while working only 32.5. In other words, we — who earn an average full-time salary of about £16,000 — are overpaid! We routinely work early mornings, evenings and weekends, without ever claiming overtime; we do assessing and planning; and we mark work. We are essential for children with special needs who need one-to-one attention. I have taught children French, religious education and art while covering absent teachers, without support. The role of the teaching assistant has changed over the years, and through this campaign it has been said that we are in fact assistant teachers. We do teach, be it one-to-one, in small groups or to a whole classes.
DCC did not think the teaching assistants, a workforce that is 94 per cent women, would resist. Its members wearily stressed the inevitability of the cuts, and cried crocodile tears over our situation. Despite the Labour Party’s vote to create a living wage of £10 per hour, the council would have reduced my pay, under the new contracts proposed for 1 January, to £9.63 per hour, according to my calculations. Deputy leader Alan Napier summed up the attitude of the council when he announced that he had ‘a fiduciary responsibility to protect taxpayers from the possibility of an equal-pay claim’. The chair of the City of Durham Labour Party and Coxhoe county councillor Maria Plews sobbed: ‘Every single one of us councillors doesn’t want this. We don’t want this situation or to be in this position. It breaks our hearts that we have to do this.’ There, there, love.