Scenes of resistance erupted on the streets of Tower Hamlets on Wednesday as council workers across the borough struck to defend their jobs.
Some 1,500 workers in the east London borough are fighting a push by management to force them to accept worse terms and conditions.
On the picket line at Albert Jacob House, around 30 workers chanted, “Tower Hamlets, shame on you.”
Passing buses, lorries and bikes tooted in solidarity every few seconds.
“It’s important to be here because you’ve still got staff members going to work and we’re trying to stop them,” Unison union rep Amina Patel told Socialist Worker.
She said the dispute was enjoying a high profile in the local area. “Everyone around here knows what’s going on,” she said. “They know this is a council building and they’ve seen us picket here before.”
Strikers are fighting Tower Rewards—a series of attacks that includes cuts to redundancy pay, flexi time, travel allowances and night work supplements.
On 6 July, council management sacked and re-employed the 4,000-strong workforce on worse contracts.
Unison members staged a three-day strike from 3 July and were set to be out on Thursday and Friday of this week too.
The behaviour of the Labour-run council is hard for workers to swallow, particularly after they put themselves in danger to deliver services during the pandemic.
Under Tower Reward guidelines, severance pay for low-paid workers has been reduced from 220 percent to 140 percent of their annual wage.
Housing officer Rita has worked at the council for 29 years and would lose out massively if the council makes her post redundant.
She told Socialist Worker that the latest attacks represented the rotten way the council is being run.
“The money is there—and it’s going to the few,” she said. “The managers are looking after themselves, it’s all ‘me, me, me’.”
Rita said a bloated layer of managers and consultants are being paid huge sums of money that could be used to fund essential services.
“They’re taking off us to give to the managers,” she said. “It’s happened in the NHS and now it’s happening here—all the managers are bringing their public school boy mates in.”
Tracy was one of many striking for the first time on Wednesday, despite working at the council for a long time—in her case, 13 years.
She “felt strongly” about the impact that Tower Rewards would have, asking, “Who’s going to work here if they can get paid more elsewhere?”
The council leadership publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement. But Tracy said its attacks on jobs and services that black women use undermine this.
“They’re also in the process of cutting essential teaching services like the Community Language scheme, which is essentially all Bengali,” she added. “And a few years ago they cut our home care service, where workers were Bengali or black.”
The task of delivering political solidarity and practical support for the workers waging an important battle in Tower Hamlets is an urgent one.
On the picket line, donations from Tower Hamlets College UCU union branch and Unison’s Islington branch were hugely cheering to strikers.
Dean Ryan from Islington Unison said workers “are in this together”.
“When we have seen the shit hit the fan like during the pandemic, the public know who was there to fight for them,” he said. “It wasn’t the billionaires on yachts, it was the people here delivering services.”
On the Mile End Hospital picket line, workers were filming a video to show a borough-wide online strike rally planned for later that day.
Union rep Martin told Socialist Worker that workers were considering pursuing a legal claim against the council over how the attacks affect low-paid, black women.
He said the majority of workers “are incensed that we’re having to do this, how can it be fair?”
Social worker Heather was one of the majority on the picket line striking for the first time. She described workers’ treatment at the hands of council bosses as “demoralising”.
“It makes you feel unappreciated and frustrated—what they’ve done feels like an abuse of their power,” she said.
Many workers held banners pointing out the council’s hypocrisy for lauding essential workers during the pandemic, then sacking them in the middle of it.
“But it’s good to be part of this today,” said Heather. “The council thought they could sneakily pull it off and it would go unnoticed, but we’re here to make sure it’s not.”
Tower Hamlets workers urgently as much support as possible. To donate to their strike fund, join a picket line or send a message of solidarity visit bit.ly/TowerSolidarity