Equal Pay,Unequal Misery: Unison and the Durham Teacher Assistants’ Dispute


Durham teaching assistants at their protest meeting over the deal this week.


The issue of equal pay for equal work is one of most enduring work scandals of our time. Women workers in particular lose out to men but it requires a lot of hard bargaining and money to tackle it.

The most dramatic current case is the long running Durham teacher assistants dispute involving over 2700 teaching assistants in Durham, mainly low paid women.

To implement equal pay Labour controlled Durham Council proposed cuts in  wages of up to £5000 for already low paid teacher assistants earning between £14,000 and £20,000 a year to bring it into line with other low paid workers they employed. The teaching assistants are the backbone of Durham’s schools, helping kids to read and understand basic numbers and when teachers fall sick deputising for them by taking classes.

The council and Unison, the union that is supposed to stand up for low paid workers, evidently were about to agree a deal that would worsen their pay and conditions when they faced a huge grassroots revolt from the teacher assistants themselves.

Feisty women workers called meeting, rallies, marched at the Durham gala and lobbied the sympathetic Labour leadership at last year’s Labour conference securing a meeting with John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor. They were even partly responsible for Labour’s poor performance in this May’s local elections which saw Liberal Democrats, Independents and Tories take seats from Labour.

Their strong action led Unison to change its mind and back them and give them some limited say in negotiating a better deal.

Last week in the middle of the Unison annual conference in Brighton the union claimed it had  negotiated a breakthrough.

UNISON Northern regional secretary Clare Williams said: “Several months of tough talking later, a revised and improved offer has been proposed that will benefit the majority of teaching assistants.

“Strikes and relentless campaigning by dedicated teaching assistants, along with the support of the community, have been crucial in moving the council from its original position.

“Dismissing, rehiring and cutting the pay of so many education professionals would have risked many quitting their jobs. That would have had a huge impact in the classroom.

“Both sides have worked hard to reach agreement over the past few months. The union is absolutely committed to continuing to work with the council to secure the best possible outcome for everyone.”

However within days the promised deal which is based on a complicated regrading started to unravel once the 2700 teacher assistants got individual letters with new terms of employment.

This week a big meeting was called in Durham and the grassroots again began to revolt.

Megan Charlton, one of the leaders of the group, wrote in a blog that she will not be accepting the deal – even though she will get a pay rise in two years time.

She said: “472 Teaching Assistants – 22% of the workforce – will still be losing money. Many are losing £1200 a year, some are losing less, some are losing more (several on our facebook group are still facing losses of £4,000 and that’s AFTER they agree to the extra hours).

“We now have a situation where the vast majority of Teaching Assistants are required to teach at least one session a week. Surely teaching should be an ‘enhanced’ requirement, an ‘enhanced’ skill, not one you would expect from the majority of Teaching Assistants who came into the profession to do exactly that: to assist teaching, not to teach.”

She said if it had been just a ” few anomalies ” she might have accepted the deal but clearly it wasn’t. It will now go out to a ballot.

Durham County Council responded to my inquiry:

The council’s corporate director of resources, John Hewitt, said: “Throughout this process the issue for the council has been the risk of equal pay claims caused by the current teaching assistants terms and conditions.

“To mitigate the equal pay risk, and to ensure that assistant’s job descriptions and grades are appropriate for the work they do, we have  worked really hard with trade unions, teaching assistants and head teachers on a fundamental review of TAs responsibilities and roles.”

“The outcome of that work is that, if accepted, the vast majority of teaching assistants will see an improvement in their financial position after the compensation period.”

To its credit Durham County Council has withdrawn its threat to sack and rehire all the teaching assistants on inferior terms. The problem the teacher assistants have is with their union which they believe rushed into the deal to announce it at its annual conference without checking the full terms.

I wanted to put this to Clare Williams, the regional secretary, and a supporter of ” Team Dave” during the last election but she declined to come back to me.

But it seems to me that  Unison has been too ready to accept this deal and has sold out some of its low paid members without pressing for  further improvements. For them it is  a real loss of cash from a low salary . An equal pay deal has resulted in unequal misery for a fifth of the workforce. And it has been negotiated by a well paid official earning at least three times the money of the lowest paid teaching assistant.


Austerity Britain: How Unison has helped create Durham’s new poor


Durham teacher assistants lobbying shadow chancellor John McDonnell at the Labour conference in Liverpool


While the national  press depicted Labour’s policies as “la la land”  and Jeremy Corbyn as ” unelectable” down at the grass roots  a group of feisty women campaigners were lobbying union leaders and John McDonnell at the conference over the very issues that have led to the rise of Corbyn and the demise of the metropolitan elite.

The Durham teacher assistants or assistant teachers as they prefer to call themselves are just one group who have been hard done by austerity and public service cuts that followed the banking crisis and is still going on today.

Their case has been more eloquently outlined by my former colleague on the Guardian  Adita  Chakrabortty  in this long article where he describes them as the Lions of Durham. Basically they are among 2700 TA’s paid from just £14,000 to  £20,000 a year and now facing a pay cut of 23 per cent or the sack.This follows years of no or minimal pay rises that have already cut their standard of living. Even those who decide to work longer hours still face a 10 per cent cut.

The most they have been offered is some  “compensation” a deferment of the  wage cuts for two years but by the time Britain goes to the polls in 2020 they will all be far  worse off than now.

All this  is happening under a Labour controlled council and they are represented by a Labour affiliated union, Unison, which supported Corbyn for the leadership.

Durham county council – which to be fair has faced substantial cuts under the Tories – seem to have mishandled the whole affair by not implementing properly an agreement four years ago and were faced with legal advice saying they had to bring  the system into line with other authorities and impose cuts..

But probably the worst offender is Unison itself who, according to the campaigners, has done little to represent them by negotiating hard on their behalf like say the FBU does for its firefighters or the RMT for its guards.

Until the Labour conference Unison seem to expect the workers themselves to lobby local councillors and local Labour MPs to try and persuade them to change their mind. Not altogether surprisingly the councillors – faced with advice from officials that they would  be breaking the law to do so – have shied away.

And most of the MPs with one notable exception- Grahame Morris Mp for Easington  – have said they cannot negotiate themselves with Durham County Council on their behalf as it is up to their union.

This has left a load of activist voters very, very angry. It has been made worse by the patronising  and off hand treatment from some officials in Durham County Council’s human resources department who haven’t even bothered to spell out the lower rates of pay.

And while Dave Prentis, the union’s leader, makes great rousing speeches ( he did so at fringes in the conference) on the plight of the lower paid public sector workers, his officials lower down the chain have been distinctly unhelpful, patronising and some times downright rude to their own members. No wonder one of the teaching assistants described Dave Prentis as  “all mouth and no trousers”. But then he is not facing a 23 per cent pay cut from Unison.

All this is leading to damaging repercussions. Some of the assistants are planning to vote Liberal Democrat in May’s elections while supporting Corbyn at the next general election. They want revenge on the councillors and unfortunately if the Lib Dems ( who are having a local council resurgence)  win seats it will be seen as a verdict against Jeremy when it is against a local Labour council.

Following the conference the Unison TA’s have voted overwhelmingly for strike action and want union support – their GMB colleagues voted narrowly against.

It seems to me time Unison pulled its finger out and went into hard negotiations with the local council. The deal they are being offered is worse than people in many other authorities have got – where wages have been safeguarded through regrading – and it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of regional organisers like Clare Williams to organise such talks now there a vote for strike action.

My view on Unison is also shared by local Labour  MPs like Kevan Jones, who has taken stick from the teacher assistants for not intervening. As a former trade union negotiator himself, he is not impressed by Unison’s local tactics and their failure until now  to negotiate on their behalf.

If Unison do let these workers down they will not only betray their members but bear some responsibility for creating more unnecessary poverty for low paid workers and fuel resentment and anger that is already felt by people left out in the cold by the Tories.