Tower Hamlets UNISON are back on strike this week, from today through to Friday – 15-17 July – with both physical and virtual rallies taking place. The council workers have mobilised against the outrageous ‘Tower Rewards’ contract imposed by management and Labour Mayor John Biggs.
Dubbed ‘Tower Robbery’ by staff and unions, the new contract restricts allowances and slashes severance, among other measures that clearly mark it out as inferior to their old contract.
These points were made by the unions in discussion with council management, dating back to the scheme’s proposal last year. As such, the council decided to impose the contract, in opposition to both the workers and the local Labour Party.
Plans to sack the entire 4000-strong workforce were announced by Tower Hamlets council, with the intention of rehiring the workers on worse terms and conditions. This comes after years of austerity, and in the midst of a pandemic. It is a clear case of class warfare, and has forced the council workers to organise and fight back.
From the beginning of their organised response, the council workers have been savaged by anti-union tactics. These are reminiscent of the most egregious moments of the Thatcher era.
First, council management took the unions to court, in an attempted injunction against the strike, citing ‘technicalities’. This was prior to the pandemic, during which the workers halted their strike action in order to provide essential services to Tower Hamlets residents, whilst the council agreed to postpone the rewards scheme.
Despite the heroic sacrifices made by the workers, the council carried out their deeply unpopular proposals. The entire workforce was officially sacked, forcing the unions to take strike action.
The union-busting behaviour then began once again. Police were called to the picket on the second day of the strike, arresting two picketers who were accused of acting as a “secondary picket”.
“Thatcher’s tactics are being used against us,” remarked John McGloughlin, UNISON’s chief Tower Hamlets negotiator, “and off all times during the pandemic.”
Despite these scandalous tactics, the workers have shown radical spirit both in the last round of strikes, and in voting for further action. Chants of “More cuts? Fight back!” show that the workforce understands the strength of the labour movement far better than the current Labour Party leadership.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner recently penned an article in the Tribune magazine with the headline “Covid-19 Has Shown Why Unions Matter”. We fully agree!
But it is then shameful that Rayner and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer have both remained silent as a Labour Mayor and Labour-run council declare war on their workforce.
Deeds, not words, are required. As Keri Anne, Tower Hamlets UNISON assistant branch secretary, remarked to Socialist Appeal supporters at the picket: “Mayor John Biggs and this Labour council say they want to clap us for our service to the community at the very time they are sacking us.”
“We are going to fight this,” Anne went on to say. “There is no way we are going to take this lying down. No justice, no peace!”
The contract has already been imposed, but the fight will and must go on. During the previous strike (and today), fellow council workers such as the refuse collectors refused to cross the picket lines. This is a clear display of the anger and solidarity that exists amongst all workers.
There is widespread anger in the local Labour Party at the behaviour of the council. The local Tower Hamlets Momentum group has mobilised in support of the strike. The two local CLPs (Bethnal Green & Bow and Poplar & Limehouse) have expressed their support for the strike and circulated material to all members stating this position.
Ten local Labour councillors have signed a public letter opposing the council's plans. One of the local Labour MPs, socialist Apsana Begum, has come out in solidarity with the strikers, attending the picket lines and speaking at the strike rally. The pressure therefore is rising on Mayor John Biggs.
Further coordinated, united, and militant action across the labour movement is required to defeat the imposition of this contract – and to win the fight against the union-busting tactics being employed by management.
This must be the start of an organised mass struggle by Labour councils and the trade unions against all the austerity and attacks being imposed on local government, public services, and the working class.
With local councils now bankrupted from a decade of Tory austerity and the current COVID-19 crisis, a tsunami of cuts is on its way. The fightback starts here.