Socialist Worker

Striking Tower Hamlets council workers launch fightback over contracts

by Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue No. 2712

Workers on the picket line at a Tower Hamlets refuse depot

Unite union members refused to cross the picket line at a Tower Hamlets refuse depot in solidarity with striking Unison members (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Hundreds of council workers in Tower Hamlets, east London, walked out on Friday against the Labour-run local authority’s “betrayal of key workers” during coronavirus.

The walkout marked the first of three 24 hour strikes by Unison union members against an attack on terms and conditions. Council bosses plan to sack and rehire 4,000 workers on worse contracts as part of the Tower Rewards scheme—known as “Tower Robbery” by workers.

Unison members mounted picket lines outside the council’s refuse depot on Silvocea Way from 5am. Bin workers in the Unite union, who were not officially on strike, refused to cross the picket line in solidarity.

One worker said they held out for three hours until “heavier-handed policing” moved people on.

At the other end of the depot, where school transport drivers are based, workers in other unions didn’t cross the picket line.

Justine, a Unison steward for schools, says they picketed the depot to “stop them going out and send a message to management”. “They are happy to support us even though they’re not on strike,” she told Socialist Worker.

“It’s disgusting to say it’s a Labour council, it’s Labour in name only.

“People have worked all through the pandemic and at the end of it this is what we get.”

Terry, a Unite union shop steward and bin worker, said they wouldn’t cross the picket lines “because we believe in workers’ rights”. 

“The council is trying to sack and rehire workers and we feel they will do it to us next,” he told Socialist Worker.

The workers were recently brought back in house from outsourcer Veolia, with a guarantee of the same terms and conditions until next March.

Terry says bosses won’t get away with it. “They’re forcing us to go back on the gate—industrial action is the only way”.

Pickets

Council workers held socially distanced pickets across seven sites, and many more supported the action at an online rally later in the morning.

Housing support workers at Albert Jacob House on the Roman Road held a lively picket line. Fatima, a Unison union member, says workers feel “betrayed” after working through the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are frontline workers and were already struggling with cuts and this is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said.

Tower Hamlets council suspended the scheme at the beginning of the pandemic, but now is pressing ahead. “It feels very underhand and disgusting,” said Fatima.

“We thought they might have had a second thought, but as soon as the lockdown is being lifted, they stick it into us.” 

The “Tower Rewards” scheme would slash severance pay by at least 80 percent, gut the flexitime scheme, cut travel allowances and reduce night work supplements.

Justine explained that slashing severance pay would cost workers thousands of pounds and make it easier to force through job cuts. “I’ve worked 15 years in the schools and would get £8,000 in redundancy and £10,000 in severance pay,” she said.

“I would lose around £10,000—that’s a big chunk and I would end up with peanuts.”

The council also wants to cut workers’ increments as they move up the pay scale. Fiona, another Unison member, said, “I’m on one of the lower grades so I could probably lose £2,000 a year.

“Then the travel allowance will be cut and we won’t have as many benefits.

“It’s a cost savings exercise to get rid of people. You’d think that a Labour council would be on your side.”

Andy Littlechild brought solidarity from the RMT rail union’s London Underground engineering branch.

“They have been the first workers to take action because of the fallout from the coronavirus,” he told Socialist Worker. “As we know, bosses and the government will want to make workers pay.”

Workers plan further strikes on Monday and Tuesday.

Every trade unionist should support them—and organise strikes in their own workplaces against bosses’ attempts to make workers pay for coronavirus.

For solidarity details and picket line locations go here

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