Sunday, 3 July 2011

Protesters mingle with shoppers

THE sun shone and the heat of the midday sun made sun cream advisable as the protestors marched down the main shopping mall.
But this was not Syntagma Square, the focus of the Athens riots against austerity measures by the Greek government.
It was the charming market town of Kendal, on the fringe of the English Lake District. Being shire country, petrol bombs and stone throwing were replaced by whistles and slogans shouted over loud-speakers.
There were just two unarmed police officers to ensure the health and safety of the marchers.
But no-one should mistake the civility for lack of passion or underestimate the resolve of the people giving up their Saturday lunch-time to make known their anger.
The marchers were protesting at thousands of teaching assistants and other council employees having their pay cut by up to 30 per cent in an equal pay exercise.
Most of the affected workers are women.
A total of 8,000 workers, employed by one of the smallest counties in Britain, have been given notice of being dismissed and re-employed on new terms and conditions to which they object. That represents half of the total Cumbria County Council workforce, including everyone from social workers to cleaners.
Westmorland and Lonsdale MP, Tim Farron, who joined the march, has warned that the council faces a tidal wave of employment tribunals over the plan for force through a new pay matrix under the single status scheme.
Single Status is the title given to a national agreement between the Labour Government and trade unions back in 1997, which aimed to harmonise terms and conditions of service for public employees, removing any unfairness in pay and rewards arrangements.
The council has already paid out £40m in back-pay, compensation and legal fees, as a result of the exercise.
Teaching assistants from across the county handed over a petition signed by over 1100 local residents to the county council asking them to think again about the single status plans. But the petition was ignored by the Conservative-Labour coalition that runs Cumbria.
Children’s Services cabinet representative, Liz Mallison, said their roles were being reviewed by head teachers, but the dismissal letters would stand.
MPs from across the county decided to write to every other English local authority to ask them for details of their implementation of single status. To date around fifty replies have been received – all indicating that there were either no pay cuts or only minor pay cuts to teaching assistants salaries.
Mr Farron, Liberal-Democrat national president, has written to the leader of Cumbria County Council asking him to call off the deeply controversial and unpopular single status programme.
“I’m sure that this shows that single status is supposed to be a rigorous exercise that harmonises job roles, terms and conditions. It is clear after the conclusion of stage three appeals that there is widespread confusion and dismay amongst county council employees and each section of the process has been rushed, conflicting information has been sent out by your authority,” he wrote.
Most of the staff affected are represented by the public services union Unison, which helped organise yesterday’s march, even though they did not join Thursday’s day of action.
It says it may ballot members for industrial action over Cumbria County Council’s controversial single-status pay review. It says the job-families approach used by Cumbria County Council, which groups together people doing different jobs, is “inherently unfair”.
The average reduction to salaries of the exercise is £3,390 a year. Cumbria’s 3,500 teaching assistants are among the losers. Full-time teaching assistants currently earn between £14,700 and £16,800 a year. The typical salary is likely to fall to £12,500 once single status is implemented.
Employees subject to national agreements like teachers and fire-fighters are not affected.
The teaching assistants have struck an emotional chord with the public because in Cumbria they have been given particular responsibility for children with special needs, meeting parents out-of-hours, adapting curricula to suit their charges and preparing for Ofsted inspections, some working up to 50 hours a week to do so.
A Cumbria County Council spokesman was unrepentant at the letter saying that it was the correct procedure.
“Under single status everyone was reassessed on the same basis in a matrix of jobs, so that there can be no unequal pay claims, which previously cost the county £40 million.
“Everyone is then offered new terms and conditions. If people sign the new contract, that’s fine and it becomes active on October 1, 2011.
“Those staff who haven’t signed, for whatever reason, then we have to give them 90 days notice, which is why the letters are going out now.
“If they turn up for work on October 1, whether they have signed or not, then by default they are accepting the new terms and conditions.”
Human Resources experts warn this strategy could lead to claims of constructive dismissal by those who quit instead of accepting the changes.
One of the affected teaching assistants at the march of around 80 people in Kendal was Sue Ireland of Burneside, who has worked at Sandgate School for 18 years.
“The way Cumbria has implemented single status has been an absolute farce,” she said. “We were all asked to provide evidence of why teaching assistants should be one a higher level of pay, but then we weren’t allowed to attend our own appeals.
“We are not militants. We love our jobs and being there for the children. Cumbria is just devaluing our jobs and professionalism after years of training.”
Mr Farron and the speakers pledged that their fight would go on.

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