The long-running dispute between County Durham’s teaching assistants and Durham County Council has taken a new turn. The dispute centres on the Council’s wish to alter contracts so that teaching assistants will only be paid for the hours they work in term time and not for holiday periods. Durham County Council recently made the teaching assistants a ‘final offer’ in which they proposed to delay the introduction of the new contracts by two years rather than by one year as originally planned. The two main unions representing Durham’s teaching assistants, the GMB and Unison, both balloted their members on the proposal. But, due to the outcomes of these votes being different, the Council have now taken a controversial step.
Last week, Unison’s members voted to reject the deal while the GMB’s members voted to accept it. The Council have responded by sending out letters to all their headteachers stating that the GMB members will receive the two-year compensation deal, but the Unison members will only be compensated for one year. The Unison members will be dismissed then reemployed on new contracts that offer only a single year’s compensation. This may well lead to colleagues doing the same job in the same school receiving different salaries.
Megan Charlton, a Unison member, said, “How dare they try to put us against each other and split us up and divide us. We are going to stand up and we are going to fight this. We won’t be victims; we will fight this all the way.”
Unison now plans to ballot its members on strike action and the results should be known in two weeks’ time. Claire Williams, Unison’s northern regional secretary, said, “Teaching assistants are angry at the way the council has behaved, threatening to sack them if they don’t sign new contracts. These are dedicated and committed individuals who are already on low wages. Many can barely make ends meet as it is. Striking is a last resort, but these low-paid employees have no choice but to consider taking action. It’s a pity the council appears not to recognise their worth.”
The unions claim that the changes to teaching assistants’ contracts could reduce the pay of some TAs by 23%. In Unison’s vote, 78% of members voted to reject the proposals and only 22% voted to accept. Another union representing some of the TAs, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, has also voted to reject the Council’s offer, by a whopping 84% to 13%.