SCHOOLS, LIBRARIES and offices in Newham, east London, were closed on Thursday of last week as members of Unison struck to defend their union. The one-day strike is the first blow in a campaign to force the council to recognise our democratic right to be represented by the union officers we elect, to decide what we put in our newsletters and to defend facility time.
Our union officers on full facility time have been told they are merely shop stewards, sent back to work, barred from some negotiations and the union has been evicted from its offices. This is a key battle for Unison, which has been fighting for a living wage in London for nearly two years. Dozens of pickets turned out at the dust depot, where some workers joined the union to take part in the strike.
Alan O'Carroll, refuse worker and shop steward, said, "If we allow this council to attack our union officers it will weaken the union all the way down the line to the depots and offices." Around 30 school kitchens were shut down and at least seven schools closed. Parents and teachers supported the picket lines and organised a levy for the strikers.
There was angry talk of betrayal by the New Labour council. "These people have never had to walk around the supermarket with a calculator checking they have enough in their purse," said one school striker. In the offices managers struggled to answer phones. Outside post workers showed their solidarity by refusing to deliver mail. Tenants congratulated strikers on their action.
Later around 120 strikers at a rally cheered striking nursery nurses from Scotland who urged us to stand firm. The union's regional convenor Geoff Martin assured us that union lay officials were standing firm behind us. In a lively debate speakers from the floor demanded stronger action from the top of the union.
We have already named the next strike date. A rank and file meeting will also discuss escalation. But we are also demanding that the union use its political muscle against the union-busting council.
Regional officer Steve Terry said that the union was withholding £5,000 of the £25,000 promised for Labour's London election campaign in June. Strikers demanded that every penny be stopped until the dispute was settled. There was a unanimous vote to instruct the branch executive to put a motion to Unison conference asking that national funding is withheld, and when the dispute is settled funding is restored only to those who support the working class movement.
Then we marched around the town hall where there was an unprovoked assault by the council's security guards on union branch chair Michael Gavan. Undaunted we continued the protest, vowing we will fight until we win!