By Mick Duncan
The fourth one-day strike by low paid teaching assistants in Brighton and Hove, due to happen on 6 January, was called off at the last minute as unions and the Council struck a very shaky deal.
The Council has agreed to the union’s demand of binding arbitration with ACAS. The dispute, by members of the GMB and Unison, is about attempts by the council to cut the number of weeks teaching assistants are paid for. The Council offered a pay rise with one hand, but tied it to a cut in weeks with the other. The net result would be a cut in pay for many workers already receiving a low wage in one of the most expensive parts of Britain.
The Council’s belligerence was met with three one-day protest strikes and much talk of escalation from the unions. Mark Turner of the GMB commented before the agreement on 19 January that “We have flushed out the leadership and management of the council. They never wanted binding arbitration and now this dispute is going up a gear.”
But accompanying this brave talk has been a bizarre insistence from the unions on binding arbitration, without any promise of any improvement whatsoever for their members. The unions have willingly surrendered their only strong hand — a solid dispute, supported by the vast majority of teaching assistants, with strong public sympathy, that has been attracting new members in their droves. Instead of negotiating from this position of relative strength, they have placed all their faith in ACAS.
Both unions have welcomed the dispute being handed over to ACAS, Turner calling it the “breakthrough” the GMB had been waiting for and expressing confidence that ACAS will make “the right decision”. Unison’s Alex Knutsen went one step further, describing his pleasure that the dispute was now being resolved by “an independent body”, and promising in advance of the outcome that “our members will understand if they have to accept a compromise.”
This is a landmark dispute. Brighton and Hove teaching assistants get a better deal than those in many parts of the country. If that deal, which still leaves them low-paid and undervalued, is undermined, teaching assistants elsewhere – particularly in London – had better look out.
An unfavourable ACAS decision will leave the GMB and Unison in other regions with an incredibly difficult job defending their members if the employers attempt to copy Brighton and Hove. The employers will certainly learn from this dispute. Will the unions?