The Durham TA’s heroic campaign.

Some eighteen months have passed since the nightmare began for the teaching assistants of county Durham. In December 2015, Durham County Council (DCC) announced proposals to sack the county’s 2,700 teaching assistants (TAs) and re-employ the same staff on new contracts with pay cuts of up to 23 percent. Many Durham TAs had already suffered a £1,200 pay cut in 2012. The TAs’ heroic campaign of resistance in the past eighteen months has garnered much attention and admiration, in the region and beyond. Twice the campaign has brought the county council back to the negotiating table for protracted talks; twice the council has produced slightly modified proposals; twice those proposals have been rejected by a majority of unionised TAs. Their tireless campaign has been a model for grassroots organisation and resistance.

On Monday 10 July, TAs affiliated to Unison and ATL voted to reject the council’s latest lukewarm offer: a proposal which would have protected the pay of 1,696 TAs, while cutting that of another 472 staff. After eighteen months of struggle, the Durham TAs were not about to acquiesce in the politics of divide and rule. Unison has now called for fresh talks with the council.

Ask local people for their thoughts on the county council, and you will hear choice replies. Aptly housed in an unattractive 1960s concrete block at Aykley Heads on the northern fringe of Durham City, DCC has few advocates. The closure last year of the Durham Light Infantry Museum, a focal point of local civic pride, caused much consternation. Many locals are aggrieved at the council’s complicity in the takeover of residential areas by private landlords converting family homes into multiple-occupancy student accommodation, forcing local people out of the city centre. More eyebrows are raised at the proposals for the imminent bulldozing of County Hall itself – in a project which will cost £50 million but will, we are told, bring 6,000 private-sector jobs to the city in the long-term.

Throw the abysmal experience of the county’s TAs into the mix, and DCC is a target for a cacophony of resentment. The depth of public support for the TAs during strike action in November 2016 was striking. Surveyed by the council in 2013, a majority of ratepayers demanded that, whatever the tidal wave of austerity entailed, the council must ringfence its education spending commitments. DCC, for its part, cites the shattering austerity imposed by Westminster. The council says it must make a further £64 million of ‘savings’ by 2020, on top of the £186 million of cuts since 2011. Funding from central government has been cut by 49 percent in the last six years.

Durham County Council’s record in the past few years makes for grim reading. The teaching assistant dispute has been especially ill-handled. At best, a troubled DCC has subjected public sector staff carrying out vital work in the county’s schools to protracted turmoil; at worst, the council has been duplicitous, attempting to break the TAs’ resolve through a combination of calculated procrastination and divisiveness. The local cannot, of course, be divorced from the national. The experience of the county Durham TAs is that of millions of workers across the UK in microcosm. In a country where 6 million people earn less than the living wage; 4 million children are growing up in poverty; and some public sector employees have suffered a 14 percent real-terms pay cut since 2010, something is deeply wrong.

The Conservatives’ war on the public sector is at its most brutal in areas like county Durham, ranked 320th out of 394 UK local authorities in disposable household income per capita in the latest available figures. Central government’s treatment of county Durham exposes the true colours of Tory rule. Durham County Council is projected, by 2020, to have suffered over £250 million worth of budgetary cuts in his budget from central government since 2011. By 2019-2020, the total central government grant to local councils is projected to drop to £5.5 billion nationally. Seven years ago, the grant was over £25 billion. The Conservatives have been characteristically ruthless in their savage attacks on the infrastructure of local government.

While public sector workers, not least county Durham’s TAs, suffer injustice and the interminable corrosion of pay, the Conservative government which orchestrates this campaign against the state enters willingly into sweetheart deals with private-sector multinationals. When, gallingly, they talk of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, the ‘investment’ to which Tories refer translates as secretive guarantees to big business, not least car manufacturers like Hitachi and Nissan. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has suggested as much as £36 billion of would-be public funding is frittered away every year in deals struck between the government, HMRC, and major companies. Local government, meanwhile, is left to rot, and some of the most ill-rewarded workers in the poorest areas of the UK are left facing life-changing consequences.

The vicious slashing of local government budgets, with such damaging consequences, takes place in the context of rising inequality nationwide. The richest 1,000 people in Britain increased their wealth by £83 billion in 2016. Inequality is rising at a faster rate than under Thatcher. Buckingham Palace, meanwhile, benefits from refurbishment to the tune of £370 million. Durham’s TAs continue their valiant campaign in the hope of being able to pay off mortgages in former pit villages. Despite the public implorations of Jeremy Corbyn and shadow education secretary Angela Rayner to resolve the local crisis, Durham’s beleaguered Labour-controlled County Council remains locked in a stand-off with the heroic TAs. The experience of the heroic Durham TAs is one fight among many in the pernicious politics of austerity Britain.

(Photograph credits: Chronicle Live; Derby News)

by Jack Hepworth.

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