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March 26, 2017 - Wendy Errington
They did themselves, their kids and their communities proud. The Lions of Durham marched in full voice on Saturday 25 March ~ from the centre of the city ~ over the River Wear ~ up to the Miners' Hall.
Hundreds of teaching assistants (TAs) from County Durham, known as the Durham Lions, were joined by hundreds and hundreds of supporters from all around the country. A massive show of solidarity. A massive message to the 57 Labour councillors who have threatened dismissal and a pay cut of up to 23% - that "it ain't over yet!"
For 18 months the TAs have battled. And still Durham County Council (DCC) is dragging its heels. For 18 months the TAs and their families have had this dispute hanging over their heads.
The march through Durham took about 40 minutes, with Saturday shoppers wishing them well. The TAs' banner led the way, closely followed by the Durham Miners' Association's (DMA) Men of Merit banner, bearing the name and face of the late General Secretary: Dave Hopper. Davey was instrumental in taking the TAs under their wing. The association of miners knows only too well what it feels like to be threatened and vilified.
Other banners representing ATL, Unite, NUT, Unison, RMT, Momentum, and many more snaked behind - people with banners from e.g., London, Derby, Doncaster and Newcastle. And of course the TAs were recognisable, wearing their white, blue and yellow t-shirts, with #ValueUs emblazoned on the back. The highlight though had to be a young lad supporting the march with his Dad. He stood at a crossroads chanting: "Who are ya? What do you want? When do you want it?" - No megaphone needed; waiting for the appropriate responses.
Eventually the Miners' Hall at Redhills was in sight. And what a sight. A huge, red brick building with a sweeping drive. I get goose pimples every time I walk towards it and take a pew in the magnificent hall. Those walls have heard some words, debates, conversations and speeches.
The rally had an impressive line-up of 11 speakers - six union reps, four TAs... and class warrior Dave Ayre. All orators. Every one held my attention; every one speaking with conviction and compassion; every one with a strong message to DCC; every one bringing the sting of a tear to my eyes... and bringing the audience to its feet. That's a rally!
Negotiations have been on and off for a year and a half, with the TAs taking strike action last autumn. What a toll on people's physical and mental health. As Dave Ayre rightly said: "It's mental torture." There does appear to be a "handle" on talks again last week. But Dave Ayre's wisdom should be heeded - "handles can fall off" and a "spare handle" of taking direct action should be kept at the ready.
Overall the mood of the rally was upbeat and uplifting. With one of the guests, Kevin Courtney (Gen Sec NUT) speaking of the value of TAs; victory; reiterating that education needs investment not cuts and that low paid workers are not a soft target. He reflected the tone of the others and the audience. A nod was given to the TAs from Derby, who have had a similar struggle, and a standing ovation showed appreciation of the contingent's presence in the hall. Megan Charlton, Secretary of the TAs' committee, said the Lions had taken their lead from the miners and a healthy disregard for authority and their name from the workers at Grunwick - the original Lions. Another TA on the committee, Lisa Turnbull, spoke of the TAs having the power of "Bounce Backability." Stronger together is the message I heard throughout the rally. Close to one thousand supporters on Saturday heard it too and echoed it by joining in with Dave Ayre singing: We Shall Overcome. Lisa was right, memories are made of such days.
So, come on Labour councillors play your part now and show the people of Durham County that you value their children's futures... and therefore value the TAs who teach the children and who contribute to the growth of our region. Do yourselves proud DCC and stay true to the Labour movement.
And if TAs you ever waiver, then I hope the energy and support from the whole afternoon was bottled and stored to boost you. The finish line is near. Collective voices will be heard. Victory is justifiably yours.