Striking council workers in east London concluded their second round of strikes on Friday with defiant picket lines and a vow to keep on fighting.
Around 1,500 Unison union members at Tower Hamlets council are battling to save critical elements of their terms and conditions. They struck for three days this week.
Strikers have mounted pickets throughout the borough. Social worker Helen was waving to the cacophony of drivers’ horns and cyclists’ bells that were noisily showing their support.
“I love being on the picket line,” she told Socialist Worker. “It’s important to be here because we’ve all got to stand together. This is going to affect services, but it’s been going on for years and years.”
Workers are fighting Tower Rewards—a package of attacks that undermines their pay, redundancy rights, travel allowance and flexi time scheme.
The attacks hit lowest paid workers the hardest—the majority of whom are black and Asian women.
Workers are determined to expose the lies at the heart of Tower Rewards. They have forced the council, led by mayor John Biggs and chief executive Will Tuckley, onto the back foot.
The council claims that some roles, such as social workers, stand to benefit from the proposals and will see a moderate increase to their pay.
But as Helen said, “You don’t take from the lowest paid to give to social workers—and I think it’s a myth we would gain anything anyway.
“Social workers are as angry as everybody else.”
Biggs and Tuckley are hoping to split apart workers in a dispute that has seen solid walkouts across all departments. Strikers reported larger picket lines on the last day of action, with many walking out for the first time.
And reps also said more workers are leaving the GMB union, which is not striking, to join Unison and be part of the action.
Momtaz, who was part of the picket line outside Albert Jacob House, told Socialist Worker that fighting Tower Rewards was critical to beating back further attacks.
“There’s going to be more restructuring, more layoffs, and more cuts coming in the name of Covid-19 austerity,” she said.
Strikers are rightly furious that their jobs and services are being threatened by a Labour council.
They have received support from Labour figures such as Diane Abbott MP, baroness Shami Chakrabarti and Apsana Begum MP.
Other local councillors have signed a letter demanding that the council pull back from imposing the new Tower Rewards contracts.
Momtaz called on those at the top of Labour to “to talk to Biggs and get him to take it off the table”.
It’s hugely welcome that Labour figures are ready and willing to show their support. But strikers need more than warm words to win—they need as much political pressure as possible forced upon Biggs and Tuckley.
Helen asked, “How can we expect Labour to lead? But it should at least support us—is Tower Hamlets council what they want Labour to be like?”
Strikers fear that the relentless push from the council to roll back on redundancy pay means it is planning mass job cuts in the future.
Beverley, who was picketing outside Mile End Hospital, told Socialist Worker that the scale of the attacks didn’t bode well for the future of the service.
“I worked in Waltham Forest for 30 years,” she said. “They did exactly the same thing there—all the workers walked.”
Beverley said that as experienced social workers left because of how they were treated, temporary or newly qualified workers were left staffing the service.
“People were so stressed out, seeing it go that way,” she said. “I’m nearly retired but I’m here picketing because it’s important to support each other.”
The result of the Tower Rewards dispute matters.
Councils desperate to cut corners and axe services, particularly in the wake of Covid-19, will be encouraged if these attacks succeed.
And every trade unionists and socialist desperate to see a fightback for our public services is sure to be cheering the Tower Hamlets strikers.
That’s why everyone must support them as much as possible—their victory would be a win for us all.