Interview with Durham teaching assistant

durham lions

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! gives our full solidarity to the Durham teaching assistants who have been engaged in a heroic struggle against Durham Labour council to defend their jobs, wages and conditions. The Labour councillors voted unanimously in favour of 23% pay cuts for the teachers. Our supporters in the North East attended their recent march and rally (Durham teaching assistants continue fight against wage cuts)and interviewed one of the organisers of the campaign, Sam, who is also a teaching assistant. We produce the interview in full below.

For more information about the campaign see: fb.me/TAsDurhamValueUs

The campaign has forced the council back to the negotiating table. What has made your struggle a success so far?

They picked on what they thought was an easy target, little women, mostly in it for pin money! No way. I've been a TA for 30 years now and won't be walked over, and along with a few other strong minded women got together at the start of this to fight together as shouting on my own wouldn't have got me anywhere. The very negative press received at the beginning was soon turned around once people knew the full shocking truth. Getting the truth out was vital as was getting parents and community support. Organisation was the key, we have utilised everyone to their own strengths, the social media team can whip up a fantastic meme in seconds, we have TAs prepared to travel the length of the country spreading the word, poster and banner designers, fact finders, and many who will leaflets whole villages to get the facts out to people. Our very demanding roles as committee means massive commitment but we were all prepared to do it as it was so unjust.

What are your demands? What agreement do you want from the council?

Pretty basic, the salary they offered for the hours they offered that we signed our contracts for. The salary has since the 1970s been split into 12 equal payments, that does not mean we are paid 52 weeks of the year. The salary is already reduced to take account of holidays.

If the next offer from the council isn’t what you want do you think teaching assistants will reject it and continue fighting?

Yes, it will be either fight or flight. One thing we won't do is meekly accept any below par offer. Originally many would have been prepared to work longer hours if only they didn't reduce our money, as most worked well over the standard hours anyway. However, as we have had to fight this bitter 18 month battle, most goodwill has gone, exact hours are being worked. We know we are worthy of the existing salary and won't now accept any less. In the last year almost 3 times as many TAs have left Durham than in any of the 5 previous years. That's pretty damning, it shows how angry some are at being devalued, they would rather leave a job they once loved. Sadly, it's the children who will ultimately suffer as underqualified, inexperienced staff would be filling roles. The fight has had a massive detrimental effect on our health, relationships and families.

At the rally you spoke about voting out Durham Labour councillors because of their role in voting for cuts to teaching assistant wages. Why is this important? Who should replace them?

The 57 who voted to SACK TAs are not representing the public who voted for them last elections. Local councillors should be public representatives, almost a defence from the highly paid officers who originally started this situation. All trust has been lost from lifelong Labour voters. The 57 were all Labour. They voted to ruin TAs lives, they will never be forgiven. There was around 30 Labour councillors who were ill/ on holiday/ committed elsewhere on that fateful day. I have heard privately from some that they were told they had no option to vote for anything else hence the outbreak of illness. What's the worst case scenario? Deselection by their CLP. So the 30 who most likely disagreed with their superiors didn't dare attend, it's just a shame not one of them got together with others and stood up for fairness and right and defied their party. 96 had the chance. None did.

18 councillors voted against sacking us- every one of them was an Independent or Liberal Democrat councillor. Owen Temple of Lib Dems has been with us from the very beginning, as has Independent Alex Watson, both in the same Ward, standing together. Interestingly Alex was a Labour councillor for decades and was deselected by them, however, the public can spot a good honest man a mile off and he continues to be elected as Ind. Several Lib Dem and Independent groups and individuals were out in force on Saturday and have been with us on picket lines and demos. In my opinion they offer far better local representation and can be trusted to stand for their constituents. 

The march was supported by Derby teaching assistants and Care UK workers. How important is it to make connections between different struggles?

We are in contact with many groups who have faced cuts, not usually on this scale. Joining up with Derby has been on our plans for ages, their situation being so similar, and again voted in by a Labour council. We have compared notes and advice with Derby for quite some time, and understand they finally have an offer their unions are happy with, one they had suggested many months ago, just a shame it took over 60 days of full or partial strikes, stress and worry for them. We hope it's successful for them as their pay was actually cut last June and individual TAs have suffered massively. Great publicity for all campaigns meeting up this way.