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