On Friday 3rd July myself and thousands of other Unison members at Tower Hamlets Council walked out on the first of three 24-hour strikes. We’re frontline social workers, environmental health workers, children’s support staff, library staff and other local authority workers who have had our backs against the wall and have had no choice but to vote to strike.
We voted to strike in late March, but held off taking action due to the coronavirus crisis. We did this in good faith, so that vital local services could still be provided to vulnerable East Londoners during a global pandemic. However, the council declined to reciprocate this good faith and is steamrolling ahead with the implementation of a new contract that will leave us all worse off. Rather than thank us, the council has made clear it will sack us if we don’t sign the Tower Rewards Package contract by Monday 6th July, before rehiring us on the worse contract.
Mayor John Biggs and senior management claim that they have attempted to negotiate with Unison and it is the union who has refused to engage. In fact, they stopped responding to Unison’s request for engagement in November 2019 and still declined to enter any discussions after the successful legal ballot in February. The council then unsuccessfully attempted to nullify NEU’s successful ballot in the courts, who were planning to join us on strike. During the lockdown they continued to refuse to discuss the new contracts. Only in mid-June just weeks before the imposition date did they agree to engage in ACAS mediation, which broke down when it became clear management were not engaging seriously in the process and simply treating it as a tokenistic way to run down the clock.
For our members, the Tower Rewards Package goes by the name of the ‘Tower Robbery’. It is a fundamentally flawed programme which increases the pay of top earners while watering down the terms and conditions of up to 4,000 workers. Any worker that agrees to it will have their travel allowances cut. Due to cuts to flexitime and night work rules, many workers will find it difficult to cope with the new regime of new long hours and workloads.
If the council embarks on a round of redundancies, as is currently feared, workers would receive 80% less severance pay than they would do under their current contract. There would also be significant changes in pay-scales benefitting the higher earners to the detriment of the lower earners.
The disregard that the council has for its own workers is clear. It has refused to provide accurate equalities data on the staff grades that will be affected by these cuts, because they know it will be disproportionately women, black and ethnic minority staff who will be hit. In recent days, 10 Tower Hamlets Labour councillors have written an open letter condemning Labour Mayor John Biggs’ implementation of the contracts. Despite his passive commitments to equality, such as grabbing a photo opportunity at the removal of the slave trader Robert Milligan’s statue on West India Quay, the new contracts will only increase inequalities.
The council’s Chief Executive may say that the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on budgets has forced the council to “make the most of the money it has.” But this is not a ‘we’re all in this together’ situation. It’s an attack on working-class people: our union members and those who they work tirelessly to support, and it’s been long in the making.
To add further insult, the council’s head of HR provoked further anxiety among our members by sending an email that many found misleading. The email, which was sent a week before the strike, falsely indicated that continuous service would be started over, which would impact on the rights and conditions entitled to our colleagues who have been on maternity leave or are approaching retirement.
Instead of appreciating the concerns of trade union members, Biggs waded into the dispute to state that many workers have already signed the contract, as if to highlight staff had no problem with the contract changes. It is a different story entirely. Following contracts and letters being sent out, our union was inundated with calls from worried staff asking whether they had to sign the contract or risk being sacked.
The council came back to us with letters threatening to take us to court to stop the union balloting for action. Yet this disgraceful behaviour, which was designed as a way to intimidate us, has only spurred us on. In lockdown, there was a chance for management to rethink their plan, but they wasted time instead.
Our members wasted no time risking our health to continuing providing support to people in need after a decade of austerity in a global pandemic. We have visited vulnerable young people and families day and night, working to protect children, at-risk elderly people and survivors of domestic abuse – which has been on the rise during lockdown. All the while, there was mixed messaging regarding risk assessments over our own safety, and our PPE situation was wholly inadequate.
But we went out on Friday, and we gained wide support. Local RMT, NEU and Labour branches are supporting us. We got support from refuse workers in Unite who, despite not being part of this dispute, showed solidarity and refused to cross the picket line, joining us on the picket lines for 4 hours until aggressive policing moved them on. These workers recognise that it will be their terms and conditions next. If the council to get away with this, it will not end here.
Our grievance with the Tower Rewards Package is not just how it impacts on us. It’s about the council’s double-dealing approach of talking up its essential workers while drubbing down their terms and conditions. Their aggressive, coercive approach towards getting workers to sign the contract, their use of Tory anti-union laws to try to block collective action, and their active disregard for how the proposed new contracts create a more racially and sexually unequal borough is enough to make us take action, and should be of concern to us all.
Unison members will continue to be on strike on Monday 6th and Tuesday 7th July, and are prepared to take further industrial action if needed. Please show your support and solidarity by sharing on social media, attending our online rallies or socially distanced pickets and writing to the council to mount the pressure to put a stop to these unjust contracts.