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

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

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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.

 

Immigration: Hypocrisy from the Home Office to Waitrose and Marks and Spencer

waitrose: aiding and abetting the end of higher agricultural wages

waitrose: aiding and abetting the end of higher agricultural wages

high class/low wage produce from hugh lowe farms pic credit: twitter

high class produce from hugh lowe farms pic credit: twitter

While a Home Office van tours the London borough of Brent telling illegal immigrants to go home or face arrest the food suppliers to our most ” ethical “supermarkets are going out of their way to encourage low paid immigration to Britain to pick the strawberries, raspberries and blackberries now on sale in Waitrose and Marks and Spencer.
The most prominent is run by Marion and Joe Regan. She is one of the leading lights in the fruit growers world and she supplies strawberries to Wimbledon, Waitrose and Marks and Spencer.
Look at the website more closely and you will find it is in English, Polish, Romanian, Bulgarian and Russian The reason is Hugh Lowe Farms are desperate to recruit labour and are targeting workers from these countries to come to Britain. The Bulgarians and Romanians – though not allowed to come here until next year – can come through a government seasonal workers scheme run, yes, by the Home Office – the very ministry behind the offensive vans.
Why Russian you may ask. Well, believe or not, fruit growers are worried ( Nigel Farage of UKIP please note) that when the Romanians and Bulgarians get the freedom of the whole EU, they won’t want to come here. Why? Because the UK under the Tory and Liberal Democrat coalition – is now being regarded as such a low wage economy and so expensive to live in – that they would rather work on farms in other EU countries.
So the fruit growers want to RELAX immigration control further and get the Home Office to approve a seasonal workers scheme for Ukrainians from next year to pick their fruit. The reason Ukrainians are even poorer than Romanians – and can’t get access to the EU.
One might have a smidgeon of sympathy for the growers need to attract workers if it were not they are also the leading lights in abolishing from the end of September the Agriculture Wages Board – which guarantees slightly higher wages than the minimum wage and the supermarkets, while officially neutral, are aiding and abetting them.
This allows lower wages from British workers recruited for the next season – a group as you can see, the fruit growers have great difficulty in recruiting already or they wouldn’t be chasing people abroad.
Waitrose can be directly implicated in the move behind lower pay – since one of their leading women executives, Heather Jenkins sat on the Farming Better Regulation Task Force – the very body that recommended its abolition. Waitrose say her role was independent, but I presume they gave her time off to do it.
Lord Currie, chair of Leckford Farms, ( more in a separate blog about him later) a major supplier to Waitrose and having opened the company’s first farm shop, is hysterical about abolishing the board.
So when you next shop in Waitrose or Marks and Spencer just remember the fruit on sale there from Britain is most likely picked by foreign workers whose suppliers are keen to get rid of a board that provides a minimum standard for workers in an already low paid industry.
Of course Waitrose and M & S deny to me that want to cut wages, so does Marion Regan of Hugh Lowe Farms in Kent- promising to put them up. But Marion Regan’s company was so lax in checking its own website – that until this week it was advertising for foreign workers on its foreign language sites at last year’s rate of pay – a full 11p an hour lower than the legal rate.