Austerity Britain: How Unison has helped create Durham's new poor
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 some £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.