Socially distanced solidarity: Tower Hamlet Council strikes during COVID-19

By Marc Lancaster, Trade Union Liaison Officer, Bethnal Green & Bow CLP 

 ‘”I’m on strike today because I am just really disgusted that we’re being attacked when so many people are working so hard, and have chosen these jobs in the first place to support their communities. And because they care about people, often choosing to work in public sector rather than the private…I think it really unfair to now be changing those terms and conditions and it does feel like a slap in the face when people have been working so hard in this time.”

“‘I feel like we’re in a climate where workers just aren’t being listened to and there are management decisions being made without any consultation.”

Tower Hamlets Council Workers from the picket line.

For six days across July, Tower Hamlets Council workers joined virtual and socially-distanced physical picket lines to express their rejection of new terms of employment. The new contracts – rejected by members of UNISON, GMB, Unite, and the NEU – were imposed on them by the Labour council using exactly the same anti-union ‘fire and re-hire’ powers that Keir Starmer condemned on 15th July as “totally unacceptable” when used by British Airways.

As UNISON have observed, the use of section 188 powers is a means to “change contracts of employment without consent…most commonly used in the private sector to drive down pay and conditions.”

The Council has not emerged from the first stages of emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet social workers, care workers, school kitchen staff, housing workers, library workers, youth workers, administrative staff, and many others—the very people who have spent the past weeks responding to the emergency of COVID-19 locally— felt they were left with no choice but to strike.

On 5th July, as part of ‘clap for carers’, Tower Hamlets Council produced a video highlighting the extraordinary work carried out by its workers. On 6th July, the Council terminated their contracts of employment and imposed new ones. “They clapped for us on Sunday and sacked us on Monday” became a common saying across the successive strike days.

The new contracts had been rejected by Unite, GMB, UNISON, and the NEU. 89.9% of UNISON’s 1,500 affected members who voted in March voted for industrial action, exceeding the threshold even as lockdown was imposed. The NEU with some 2,000 members also voted for strike action.

The new contracts reduce severance pay, reduce shift allowances, restrict flexible working, reduce starting salaries for the lowest paid roles, and boost salaries for a group of staff paid around £40,000. Unions have repeatedly called for a proper equalities impact assessment to be made available for independent scrutiny because those most affected – workers on low pay and in part-time work – are disproportionately women, black, Bangladeshi, or workers from other minority ethnic groups.

Both local CLPs have firmly backed Council workers from the outset, calling on Tower Hamlets’ directly elected Mayor John Biggs to ensure that terms and conditions are not undermined.

The Council claims that new terms constitute a necessary ‘modernisation’. The back and forth between the Mayor and Labour Party Members on these matters has produced lengthy briefings.

From the beginning of the process, Tower Hamlets CEO Will Tuckley tried to sideline the recognised unions. The package of changes branded as ‘Tower Rewards’ was presented to staff in a coordinated marketing campaign before it had even been discussed with unions. Workers were told to attend ‘HR workshops’ to discuss what staff quickly re-named ‘Tower Robbery’ at the same time as senior management were treating union officials with such contempt that regional officials from Unite, GMB and UNISON lodged a formal complaint.

The Council have insisted that this is not about cuts or redundancies. On the picket lines, however, there was a palpable sense of distrust and anger, that at the very moment in which staff had spent months slogging their guts out for the wellbeing of the borough’s residents, management had proved unwilling to listen and halt the implementation of the Scheme. On the picket lines were UNISON members who had worked for the Council for decades — 15, 25, 38 years. Uniting these workers was a clear sense of class position, and profound sense of institutional memory. Through memories of previous strikes and the effects of decades of restructures and shifting practices, it felt like many workers understood this struggle as part of the history of the Council for which they work.

In the context of COVID-19, it seemed staff also understand their new terms and the means of their implementation through the lens of the pandemic. Tower Hamlets is a borough of remarkable ethnic and cultural diversity and the picket lines were representative of that diversity. COVID-19 has exposed the inequalities of society through its disproportionate effects on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. The show of strength and solidarity, at this moment, was a real testament to how important local UNISON members feel this fight is.

Workers are also understandably wary of the Council’s assurances about the future. After 10 years of austerity, we are now facing a deepening crisis with early signs suggesting that local government will fall under even greater pressure to administer Tory cuts. In these contexts, there was a sense that this dispute needed to be seen within a broader struggle. This understanding was widely shared: if these would seem to be the largest socially distanced picket lines yet to be held, the four virtual rallies were equally impressive, with audiences of between 400 and 500 attending each one to hear prominent figures from the labour movement.

Dave Prentis joined the online picket describing the implementation of Tower Rewards as ‘immoral’ and pledging UNISON’s full support. Apsana Begum MP, one of two Labour MPs in Tower Hamlets, made it clear that it is unacceptable for a Council to be forcing through contracts in this way at the height of a pandemic which has hit local constituents so hard. She was joined in her calls for Mayor John Biggs to return to negotiations by Diane Abbott, Paula Barker, Richard Burgon, John McDonnell, Nadia Whittome, Shami Chakrabarti and John Hendy. While NEU members felt unable to implement their strike mandate at this juncture, Kevin Courtney joined leaders from the FBU and the TUC at the rally to condemn the Council’s actions.

An increasing number of Tower Hamlets Councillors have felt able to voice their own concerns. Eleven of the 42 Labour councillors wrote the Chief Executive and Mayor John Biggs laying out deep concerns about the process by which the contracts were being implemented and asking that the data on which the Equality Impact Assessment was based be made available to unions for an independent evaluation.

This is a time of deep uncertainty for local authority councils across the country. With furlough winding down, and round after round of job losses and redundancies announced across all sectors of the economy, it is clear that we are heading for catastrophic recession. Now more than ever, we need to value the public sector.

Within this broader context, the six days of strike action taken by Tower Hamlets Council workers across the past weeks were an important show of strength. Rather than just walking into their workplaces, or logging on to their remote computers, under new terms and conditions on Monday 6th July, local UNISON members withdrew their labour. And they walked onto picket lines, along with many local Labour Party members and residents, which grew stronger and stronger by the day. This provided an antidote to the alienation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. There, on the picket lines, workers met, laughed, exchanged numbers for WhatsApp groups and formed new friendships with their colleagues from across the workforce.

In a borough with one of the highest rates of child poverty in the country, the devastation, wreaked by a decade of Tory cuts is all too apparent. As we face the deepening social and economic crises of the coming years, it is equally clear that we must find forms of resistance from within the labour movement. When I stood on the picket, alongside workers, neighbours and residents, it became clear that schemes such as Tower Rewards are not only a direct attack on workers’ terms and conditions but are also indicative of an approach which runs counter to the principles of solidarity and collective responsibility so central to the work our councils carry out. This solidarity and collectivity will be ever more necessary in the coming years, as we stand together to confront the looming cuts and crises: galvanising workers, residents and Labour representatives in a coalition of resistance.

As Diane Abbott reflected: “How sad that in a part of London with such strong associations with the labour movement, a Labour Council is treating its staff in this way – using Tory legislations to drive down terms and conditions.”  Here in east London and across the country, as the Tories plot their response to COVID through a wave of redundancies and privatisation, working class people need their local Labour councils to stand with them in resistance. As Keir Starmer said on 15 July, “Actions like those at BA cannot be allowed to stand without consequences.”

The contracts may have been implemented but the strike continues, UNISON members are continuing to call for their withdrawal. To join a picket line virtually or physically or for further information see https://www.facebook.com/TowerHamletsUnison, https://london.unison.org.uk/2020/07/22/tower-hamlets-strike/ , or twitter: @UNISON_TwrHmlts

UNISON have now announced a further three days of strikes on 13, 14 and 17 August. Please show your solidarity with striking workers and join their calls for Mayor John Biggs to return to negotiations – https://towerhamlets.unison.site/news