Durham teaching assistants receive international support

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STRIKING Durham Teaching Assistants have received international support with the Europe-wide public services union EPSU sending a message of ‘strength and solidarity’.

The teaching assistants, working at both primary schools and nurseries, were out last Wednesday and Thursday in the latest 48-hour strike against an appalling attack on their pay and conditions.

The dispute has been ongoing for the last 14 months, when the council announced that they will be moving the teaching assistants on to a new contract which does not pay them during the school holidays.

Ordinarily all of those who work in schools are paid during the holidays so that they can live, however, the council are not only introducing new term-time only contracts but they are introducing them through dictatorship.

They plan to sack every single teaching assistant in the borough, and then only those who sign up to the new contract will be allowed back. The European-wide union EPSU wrote to the Unison general secretary Dave Prentis with the following letter:

‘Dear Dave,

‘Please pass on our solidarity greetings to the teaching assistants in Durham who are on strike in protest against the county council’s proposed pay cuts.

‘We hope that this second two-day action will be successful but also express our support for their planned work-to-rule following the strike. We strongly agree with you that the council is acting in an appalling and heartless way by imposing massive pay cuts on this group of low-paid, mainly women workers.

‘We note that the majority for strike action was over 90% and hope that this strength of feeling and the national backing from Unison will lead to a successful outcome. We see this as not just about opposing austerity and preventing that the most vulnerable workers don’t pay the price, but also about equality and ensuring that the work of an important group of women employees is not undervalued.

‘Yours in solidarity,

‘Jan Willem Goudriaan

‘EPSU General Secretary’

The 48-hour strike was very successful with teaching assistants joining over 100 picket lines across County Durham. A lot of schools were completely shut down, and many partially closed. Unison calculates that teaching assistants are facing pay cuts of up to 23%.

Staff have said they will be left thousands of pounds out of pocket and unable to pay their rent and mortgages if the changes are pushed through. Anne Aylesberry has worked as a teaching assistant at special school, Durham Trinity School and Sports College for 26 years.

She said: ‘I’ve got a mortgage. I’ve got bills just the same as everyone else. We can’t face losing this sort of money. Holidays will be a thing of the past for me. I will struggle. I’ll need to cut back completely.

‘I am 60 years old, these changes could affect my pension. If the changes go through I will only be earning £5,000 more than when I started work in 1990. I feel totally undervalued. They think we’re just unqualified pot washers but we aren’t. We’ve got skills and experience that we’ve worked really hard to get.’

Unions have called the council’s plans ‘heartless’ and urged the authority to settle the dispute. Unison northern regional secretary Clare Williams said: ‘Teaching assistants are dedicated to their jobs and the children they teach.

‘But they shouldn’t have to survive on wages so low they don’t know how they will pay their bills once their wages have been cut. Councillors should settle this dispute so that teaching assistants can go back to the jobs they love.

‘It’s very simple. There can be no justification to say you are tackling an equal pay issue by slashing pay by up to 23%. Teaching assistants are dedicated to their jobs and the children they teach. They don’t want to be taking strike action, but the council has left them with no option.’

Meanwhile, Unison have launched a petition to save council nursery school funding.

Many council nurseries are threatened with closure, up and down the country. Unison said: ‘The government announced plans earlier this autumn to change the way it funds “early years” or pre-school services, which would mean less money for nursery schools.

‘Unison is working with a number of other unions and organisations in the sector and calling on the government to reconsider its proposals. This included a joint letter to education secretary Justine Greening, warning her of the dangers contained in her department’s consultation paper, Early Years Funding: changes to funding for three- and four-year-olds.

‘Now Unison is urging members, parents and everyone else who is concerned to sign the parliamentary petition “Save state-funded nursery schools”. The union points out that nursery schools are run like a school, with qualified teachers and early years staff.

‘They are widely recognised as centres of excellence, often serving the most deprived areas of the country. But, warns the petition, current funding plans “will not cover basic costs, let alone staffing with qualified teachers”.’

• Unison has a campaign to ‘Save Our Local Services’ – SOS. It highlights the damage done to services and communities after year-on-year of Tory cuts. Last Monday, Unison launched a successful SOS day of action across the country.

The campaign, led by the union’s local government service group, focused on social care – pointing out that the services have lost almost £2bn from their budgets in the last 10 years.

And while the money available to deliver for social care has fallen, the number of older and disabled people who need support is growing. This means bad news for those who use care services, their communities and the workers who provide the care they need.

‘I agree with Unison,’ Labour’s Liz McInnes told fellow MPs last week on the day of action. Carers are an integral part of the healthcare system, and they must be valued and properly remunerated for the work carry out, year in, year out.’

The MP for Heywood and Middleton in Greater Manchester was speaking in an opposition debate on care, which came after a drop-in session with Unison members at Parliament.

It also coincided with the launch of a new Unison report, The Damage: Care in Crisis.

This showed that 63% of staff said they had less time to spend with people they care for, because of staff shortages, while two thirds reported fewer staff doing the care work and 70% said there was a greater care load.

Budget cuts over recent years mean care workers have more clients with more intensive needs, but less time to spend with them. In short, said the report, ‘cuts have left a trail of destruction and this is affecting those in desperate need of care. Care workers do a vital job looking after the most vulnerable in society. But they’re not getting the support they need from their employers.’