Lisa Turnbull did not want to be a political campaigner but in 2015 her employer Labour-controlled Durham County Council told her and 2,700 of her fellow Teaching Assistants that their highly skilled work would be downgraded and their pay cut by 23%.
It’s only women’s work….
She says, “I just had to do something. I was so angry, and still am, but I have to stand up for what I believe in.“ 95% of the TAs are women, who work with children and, like many other groups of women workers – such as care workers, cleaners and catering staff – face managements who label their work as women’s work that is not skilled or valued. But over the last few years those women are fighting back in campaigns for cleaners, care workers and TAs.
Northern radical roots….
Lisa comes from a part of the country that had a dyed in the wool radical tradition born out of the mining union and its close connection with the Labour Party. Forty years on and all has changed. There is little industry, unemployment is rife, and disillusionment with the Labour Party and trade unions has hollowed out that radical tradition.
Her background is like that of many working class families in areas such as Durham. “My Dad has always been a Labour man until now: he will no longer vote Labour.” Her father had a tradition of being in a union. “When he worked in factories he was a shop steward and when he had an accident the union supported him. He always encouraged me to be in a union.” In 1990, when she got her job, she joined Unison and regularly paid her dues but otherwise had no involvement in the union.
But in 2015 her employer, a Labour Council, threatened her job and her livelihood when 57 Labour party councillors voted to sack them on New Year’s Eve and reinstate them on New Year’s Day on inferior contracts.
Women, doing it for themselves….
Her union Unison were slow at defending the largely women workforce. Lisa says; “In the beginning we had to fight the union and I found that hard.” But the women did what women are good at, organising themselves. They set up their own campaign Durham Teaching Assistants Value Us Campaign and used social media to bring together a workforce of 2700 Teaching Assistants who are scattered across the county and often isolated in schools. Their first banner was made up from broomsticks bought from Home Bargains.
As well as challenging the local council they have taken their campaign across the country – from the Durham Miners Gala to trade union meetings and conferences . Last month they had their own rally in the town centre which attracted trade unions and supporters locally and nationally from Alan Cummings (Secretary of Durham Miners Association), Unison, ATL, NUT to the FBU London and Bolton Unison.Lisa says; “Before I would have spent my Saturday shopping instead I stood on a concrete bollard addressing 1000 people.”
But their focus is on the betrayal they feel by the local Labour Council. Lisa is categorical, “They are Labour cuts.” And the Durham TAs are using the local elections to name and shame the 57 councillors who voted for the cuts to their jobs. Lisa feels that through their campaign they have hit a nerve in Durham generally about the Labour council. “It is a Labour stronghold but there is a lot of unrest. People are asking questions because of the stand we have made.”
Passing it onto the next generation….
For all political activists there is a personal cost, particularly if you are a single parent like Lisa. “My daughter is 17, over the last two years I have been out campaigning, sometimes until 9pm at night. But I believe that you have to stand up for what you believe in and I am passing that onto her.”
And it’s not just her own daughter that Lisa is talking to. When Lisa and the Durham TAs went on strike she spoke to her class about why she did it. “Its really important to explain to children that if you do not believe in something that you have to stand up and say “no” emphasises Lisa, “And it is important to educate the next generation about our campaign.”
Knowing your own history of radicalism is key to people feeling confident in challenging unfair and unjust treatment. The Durham T.A.’s are part of a radical history of women workers fighting for their rights. They are documenting their struggle by keeping a record of all their blog posts, tweets, fliers and posters, teeshirts and letters received. Lisa has a book in which she is recording her speeches and the poems she has written during the last two years.
Nearly two years on Lisa says her main feeling about the campaign is “Anger”. Like many people who make that decision to challenge authority it is the personal cost that really take its toll. She says; “I am not going to be the same ever again.But I am fighting for something better. I have to do this, I have to be able to look myself and my daughter in the eye.”
Come and listen to Lisa speak at the launch of the Manchester and Salford Women’s TUC on Saturday 29th April at 2. 15pm in the Mary Quaile room at the Manchester Mechanics Institute , 103 Princess Street.
Read about the Durham Teaching Assistants campaign here