Unison to ballot on strike after members reject new deal for County Durham classroom assistants

Unison members protest at County Hall in April
Unison members protest at County Hall in April

Hundreds of teaching assistants across County Durham are to be balloted on strike action after they rejected a new compensation offer over a change to contracts.

Classroom staff have been locked in a bitter battle with Durham County Council over changes to their terms and conditions, which unions say could see some losing as much as £400-a-month from their wages.

GMB regional organiser Michael Hopper

GMB regional organiser Michael Hopper

The proposals, which would see 2,700 members of staff dismissed and re-engaged on new contracts under which they would be paid for term time only, sparked a major campaign by staff, with dozens of people protesting at the council's County Hall offices in April.

Durham County Council says the changes will bring staff into line with the majority of people in similar roles at other local authorities.

The plans, approved in May, initially included one year’s compensation for loss of earnings but the county council came back to the table earlier this month with an improved compensation offer in a bid to end the dispute.

But members of Unison have voted to reject the new deal by a majority of 72 per cent on a 78 per cent turn-out.

The union says it will now ballot on strike action, and will begin sending papers to members early next week.

Northern regional secretary Clare Williams 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 feel they have no choice but to consider taking action. Teaching assistants make a real difference in the classroom — teachers couldn't teach without them and parents value them. It’s a pity the county council appears not to recognise their worth too.

"Unison is fully behind the teaching assistants, whatever course of action they choose to take."

But Unison members will not be joined in any industrial action by colleagues from the GMB, after they voted to accept the improved deal by a majority of 53.5 on a turn-out of 74.2%.

Regional Organiser Michael Hopper said: "Our members have acted with great professionalism and fortitude during what has been a very stressful and difficult process.

"As an independent trade union our members involved in the dispute have spoken in a democratically-held ballot. That is to accept the offer.

"The GMB is now tasked with going into urgent negotiations with Durham County Council and that is what we will do."

Durham County Council’s director of children’s services, Margaret Whellans, said: "We are really disappointed that UNISON members have voted not to accept our revised compensation offer which their unions and mediation service ACAS all recognised was the best deal possible.

"However, we now face a very complex set of circumstances, with GMB members voting to accept the deal and GMB requesting urgent discussions with the council about that. We also have several hundred teaching assistants who are not members of any union and therefore were unable to take part in the ballot.

"This has been a really long and difficult process and it should be recognised that all but one other council in the North East and many nationally have already addressed this issue. We also have a legal and moral duty to deal with it.

"We value the work teaching assistants do with our county’s children and young people, and that is why we have tried to resolve the current inequality in a way that minimises the impact on affected staff and the education of young people in County Durham."