There are hopes that a deal might be struck in the long-running pay dispute between Durham County Council and its teaching assistants.
Yesterday the council issued a statement saying there had been “productive talks” with Unison, one of the two unions involved in the dispute.
John Hewitt, Durham County Council’s corporate director of resources, said, “I am pleased to say these talks have been positive and an agreement has been reached which means tomorrow’s (1st December) industrial action by Unison has been called off.”
Strike action was due to take place today and on three days next week. Unison say a decision will be made about next week’s strike dates following further talks with the council.
The dispute was sparked by Durham County Council’s announcement that it would fire all its teaching assistants then reemploy them on new contracts. This would mean the TAs would be paid less because the new contracts would only pay them for the term-time hours they work and not for school holidays.
The council claimed this change was necessary to avoid costly equal pay claims by other hourly-paid staff, but the TAs argued it would lead to them losing up to 23% of their already modest salaries.
Mr Hewitt went on to say, “We are clear that an equal pay risk exists that needs to be addressed. However, it is also important to properly examine aspects of the employment of teaching assistants which merit further review considering some information that has come to light recently.”
“We have agreed to undertake a review of teaching assistants’ role, function, job description and activities within the breadth of school activities, to establish whether current job descriptions adequately describe the role being undertaken.”
Mr Hewitt said that the review would last until 1st September 2017. He promised that until that time the council would not go ahead with its “dismissal and reengagement process”.
Mr Hewitt added, “This is a very complex situation and it has also resulted in us having further discussions with other recognised trade unions.”
“We look forward to working with these trade unions on the way forward and very much appreciate Unison’s decision to call off tomorrow’s planned action.”
— County Durham TUC (@CDTUC) November 30, 2016
The news will come as a relief to teaching assistants, who could have been sacked as early as New Year’s Eve. The TAs, who have already undertaken four days of strike action and announced a work to rule, appear to have been well-supported by parents and the wider public.
The TAs also received a boost recently when the City of Durham Constituency Labour Party defied County Durham’s Labour dominated council by backing the TAs.
Unison’s northern regional secretary, Claire Williams, said, “Disputes are only ever solved through negotiation.”
“At last there can be proper talks without the threat of huge pay cuts hanging over teaching assistants’ heads.”
“Everyone is now hoping that councillors act in good faith, abandon their pay cut plans once and for all, and show how much they value their brilliant teaching assistants.”