Strikers in Tower Hamlets are taking on a Labour council (Pic: Guy Smallman)
A pitched battle is raging in east London between bullying council management and 1,500 workers who are refusing to give in. Unison union members were set to walk out for their second three-day strike this week.
They face a Labour-led administration determined to bully and bribe them into swallowing worse working conditions.
Tower Rewards is a complex series of proposals that rides roughshod over the hard-won terms and conditions of 4,000 council workers.
The 1,500 who are in Unison had planned to strike in April, but postponed their action due to the Covid-19 crisis. Bosses agreed to delay implementing Tower Rewards at the eleventh hour.
But now, as council workers continue to deliver key services during the outbreak, bosses are rolling out the plans.
Labour mayor John Biggs and council chief executive Will Tuckley have overseen 18 months of intimidation. They forced the implementation of the new, worse contacts last week.
Yet workers have refused to back down. Instead, they have recruited to the union, planned strikes, staged dozens-strong pickets and won solidarity action by others who support them.
Amina Patel, Unison convenor in adult social care, told Socialist Worker that strikers are standing firm.
“Some workers were told if they signed the new contracts they would be offered money and if they didn’t, they would get a P45 or it would affect their long service award,” she said.
“However none of us on the picket line have signed up to the new terms and conditions.”
And the way bosses have treated workers during the pandemic has further stoked their desire to fight.
Amina said an “oblivious” management had leant on workers to complete home visits without protective kit. She said others had been pressured to come into the office despite living with medically vulnerable people.
Council workers in Tower Hamlets on strike last week (Pic: Guy Smallman)
Martin Durrant is Unison steward for council workers who work with patients at Mile End Hospital. He told Socialist Worker he and his colleagues were “outraged and sickened” at the imposition of Tower Rewards.
“They’re ready to clap for us during the pandemic,” he said. “Essential workers have often put themselves at personal risk during the coronavirus crisis. Yet management isn’t prepared to postpone the imposition.”
Martin described the proposals as the “icing on the cake” after years of council cuts. And he said Tuckley was “notorious” for making cuts at his previous job in the outer London council of Bexley.
“It’s what they term modernisation, but it’s really tragic considering the proud history of Tower Hamlets and the labour movement,” he said.
“To think the council is just cutting and pasting cuts from these Tory councils is disgusting. They’re paid so much money and they’re absolutely ruthless. They’ve made a career out of these draconian cuts and attacking people’s conditions.”
Housing worker Morag said if managers are allowed to ram through the attacks, they will feel even more confident to attack services in the long-term.
“A lot of us are facing restructuring,” she told Socialist Worker. “If bosses win the Tower Rewards dispute, they’re going to be emboldened in the restructuring process.
“There will be more targets and more spreadsheets.
“Management will bring in cheaper labour to do telephone interviews, and that contact with the public will be eroded.
“So if we lose over Tower Rewards it’s going to be detrimental to the service as a whole.”
And workers fear the bosses’ specific push to slash redundancy pay means they are planning mass job cuts.
Council bosses are using the mounting costs of dealing with Covid-19 as an excuse to slash jobs and services. Just last week Croydon council announced a consultation on axing 200 jobs.
“We can see it a mile off—they’re preparing the way for a further round of redundancies,” explained Martin. “They want to make it cheaper to buy people off—and a way of doing that is cutting severance pay.”
Under the previous redundancy scheme, low-paid workers would receive around 220 percent of their annual pay if they lost their jobs. But the Tower Rewards proposals slash this to 140 percent.
A key issue at the heart of the fightback is how the scheme will entrench and deepen inequality within the council workforce.
Strikers are furious that the Tower Rewards scheme not only tries to cut low-paid workers’ pay, but also tops up wages at management pay scales.
Unison members are striking - but some Unite members have refused to cross picket lines too (Pic: Guy Smallman)
“It’s creating a bigger gap in inequality,” explained Amina.
“Those in the highest pay grades will get more money. So those in management and higher roles will benefit from Tower Rewards.
“But for those on lower pay grades, their travel allowance is being cut. For me that means a cut of £596 a year.”
The scheme would see a massive reduction of flexi-time allowance—a cut that particularly hits low-paid women with caring responsibilities.
And the council is refusing to release key data that would show the true impact of its proposals on women and black workers.
Unions have called for an independent Equality Assessment into Tower Rewards. Yet council management have refused to commission one, or release the information for Unison to conduct its own.
“Unison wants to do an analysis,” said Amina. “We’ve asked the council many times for the data. But they say they don’t collect data on people’s ethnicities, salaries and ages—really?
“Biggs and Tuckley took the knee for Black Lives Matter, but that’s because they’ll do anything for a photo opportunity—they’re not with us.
“They’re just white men in power who will continue to do what they can to stay at the top.”
For Amina, the experience of standing alongside her colleagues on a picket line was hugely exciting after not seeing them for several months.
“The stakes are so high, and so many people are standing with us in solidarity,” she said.
“It really feels like we’re not alone—we can do this, we can win, we have to continue doing what we’re doing.”
Why do Labour councils attack their workers?
The actions of the John Biggs administration are causing chaos across the local Labour Party. Ten Labour councillors within Tower Hamlets have broken ranks and called for the implementation of Tower Rewards to be called off.
In a letter they said, “The use of Section 188, essentially sacking all staff and expecting them to come back upon the imposed terms and conditions, is unjustified.
“We believe in the right of workers, particularly workers so vital to our borough, to determine the terms and conditions of their work through collective agreement. In a borough with such high levels of poverty and inequality we think most local residents will agree.”
Yet the letter didn’t call for the scrapping of Tower Rewards. Instead the councillors want negotiations to resume and its implementation to be agreed by all parties.
This is not surprising. The recent election of Keir Starmer as Labour leader is pulling the party to the right.
But that’s not why Labour councils are attacking workers. The Tower Rewards dispute has been bubbling for 18 months, including during the leadership of left winger Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour councils across Britain implemented Tory cuts under Corbyn’s leadership, while some launched vicious attacks on workers sparking resistance.
Battles by Durham teaching assistants and home care workers in Birmingham are two of the most obvious examples of this.
There are Labour councillors who make good speeches against the Tories, and some join campaign platforms. But the actions of a few individuals don’t make up for how the party operates as a whole.
Labour councils don’t fight cuts—they deliver them.
Across the board, services have been slashed or privatised, jobs axed and pay cut since Tory austerity began in earnest in 2010.
Central funding from Westminster has been slashed by a decade of Tory governments that are determined to run down public services.
And research from the Centre for Progressive Policy think tank said in June that eight out of ten councils are at risk of bankruptcy.
Across England, it’s estimated that councils are operating at a £6 billion shortfall. The coronavirus crisis and economic fallout makes the Tower Rewards dispute even more important.
Council managements across Britain will be getting ready to sharpen their knives and attack workers to plug the funding gap.
But although many Labour Party members will support workers’ action, the organisation as a whole does not.
That’s because the party seeks what it sees as respectability and electability above all else. And Labour won’t challenge laws that put workers at a disadvantage, making it a block on resistance.
We can’t look to Labour to stop the onslaught of cuts that is coming. Instead, workers have to organise to resist attempts to make us pay for the bosses’ coronavirus crisis.
Union leaders, such as Unison general secretary Dave Prentis, often send warm wishes to strikers. But they fail to organise or call for concrete actions that could help strikes win.
It’s hugely welcome that Prentis spoke at a Tower Hamlets strike rally and called out Bigg’s bullying behaviour. But the Unison national leadership needs to do more and encourage wider action, robust financial help and a political campaign to win this dispute.
Tory anti-trade union laws are designed to put workers and their unions off taking action—and sometimes they work. But sometimes they don’t.
In Tower Hamlets last week, refuse workers and members of the Unite union refused to cross a Unison picket line at their depot.
And in Glasgow during an 8,000-strong equal pay strike by women council workers in 2018, bin workers wouldn’t take their wagons over the picket line.
Strikers should fight for maximum political and industrial solidarity. But it is their action, not any from the top of the unions or Labour, that can win.
How to show your solidarity with the strike
Workers plan a three-day strike from Wednesday 15 July. Here’s what you can do to support them:
- Invite a striker to speak at your union meeting
- Donate to the strike fund—sort code 60‑83‑01, account number 41020890
- Rush messages of support to strikers via towerhamletsunison.site/2020/07/10/public-support
- Visit the picket lines from 8am every strike day
Further details can be found at facebook.com/TowerHamletsUnison
What does Tower Rewards mean?
- Redundancy pay slashed
- Harder to climb up pay scales
- Flexi scheme destroyed
- A review into Special Leave terms
- Night work supplements reduced
- Disciplinary and grievance procedures weakened
- Travel allowances cut by £596 a year and tougher to claim them
- Axing paid travel time for workers with additional mobility needs