Derby Council climbdown leaves problems

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By Ralph Peters

On 15 to 17 March there was a dramatic reversal of the bullying and confrontational attitude that Derby’s Labour Council had until then shown to Unison in the 10 month long dispute with school support staff.

The sudden change followed several weeks in which increasing solidarity had been shown towards the school support staff. Local support for them in the community of Derby had always been strong and personal support of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell had been known for a long time. But in the local Labour Party there had been none.

Then both wings of Momentum gave support at national meetings or conferences. The Clarion magazine launched a petition that got the signatures of leading national officials of Labour-affiliated unions. Reports started flooding in of supportive motions being passed at Labour Party meetings.

Another pressure was the likely reopening of the dispute of the Durham Teaching Assistants' dispute. A march has been called in Durham on 25 March as frustration builds at the suspension without progress of their dispute.

Only the week earlier the Council leader Ranjit Banwait had walked out of ACAS meetings to denounce the union. But then rumours circulated about plots to depose the council leader. Radio Derby asked Banwait whether he was going to resign.

On Friday 17 March, the stewards agreed to put a proposed deal out to ballot with a recommendation to accept. As we go press, we do not know the details.

Last June Derby Council unilaterally imposed a new contract on the school staff. Allegedly because of an equal-pay review, it led to a pay cut of about 25% for the teaching assistants (TAs, mostly women) and an attempt to make them work longer hours.

The deal included promises of compensatory payments. The proportion of staff receiving those payments, and the extent of compensation, have not been yet revealed.

The council is saying that much of that funding will have to come from the local schools. That will make it difficult to get agreement at the many academies in Derby.

The striking school staff had developed very extensive support from parents and their organisations. Parents know of the crucial and demanding work they do. But there is a risk that academies, the Multi Academy Trusts, and the local authority will attempt to makethis deal the excuse for cuts elsewhere.

School support staff will need to extend the solidarity they developed with parents and develop campaigning links with other education unions against all the cuts on school budgets.

There are strong ties between the Derby TAs and the Durham TAs, who have also been in dispute.

A combined strike by them would boost both of their disputes and strengthen the morale of TAs elsewhere who might be at risk.