Tower Hamlets council in East London is heading towards a major dispute with public sector unions in what is one of the most deprived areas of the capital.
The council was presented with the need to cut £44 million from its budget last year, having suffered a 64% cut in government funding since 2010. This is despite the authority have to deal with some of the worst conditions in the country. As a result, the council has been looking at the cutting back of staff costs as a source of quick cash.
The Labour council under the leadership of its directly-elected mayor John Biggs, is pushing forward with plans to impose new contracts and conditions on its staff. Grandly called ‘Tower Rewards’, this will cut pay for new entrants, degrade and push back on working allowances and expenses, cut pay for night work and change the status of many of the other rights which staff are entitled to. One major area of concern is that severance pay conditions are to be severely reduced, making it much cheaper to just get rid of staff if management wish. Certainly all staff at SO2 grade and below can expect to lose out bigtime over the Tower Rewards (TR) deal, with only the very tops doing OK.
The TR plan was rightly rejected by all the main public sector unions - Unison, GMB, Unite and NEU - in the summer of last year. Unison members voted against the plan by 84.55% on an 80.6% turnout, such was the mood of anger. The unions made clear to Biggs and the senior officials who surround him that the workforce simply wasn’t going to accept this and just roll over.
However, instead of pulling back, the council leadership has just pressed on. HR director Amanda Harcus announced that the authority would be issuing Section 188 notices to the workforce and then move straight to the formal consultation period of 44 days, which in reality would be just a sham. The intended outcome would be that, unless the unions caved in, all the staff would be sacked and then offered re-employment but on the new terms and conditions. For a Labour council to consider this draconian and shameful attack on council staff is nothing short of disgraceful. They have even threatened to use the Tory anti-trade union laws to cut across the workers right to take action over this.
Unions have already held a protest outside the town hall and have made it clear that they are ready to ballot for strike action rather than let the council push through the TR contracts by the start of the new financial year in April.
All public sector unions should be ready to give support and solidarity. This doesn’t just affect Tower Hamlets. Despite all the government talk about the end of austerity, local councils up and down the country are facing a very parlous situation. A sizeable number could potentially go bust over the next period such are the financial constraints now before them. Given the lack of fight on the part of councillors, many of the council leaderships may see the Tower Hamlets option as an escape route, if - and only if - it is seen that they can get away with it.
The response must be clear: workers must not be forced to pay for the bosses’ crisis. If the strikes go ahead then the whole labour movement must be ready to give support and remind these councillors of the real fighting traditions of Labour in the borough, going back to the stand of the Poplar councillors nearly a hundred years ago.