Council workers in Tower Hamlets finished their latest round of strikes on Monday by defiantly marching through the east London borough to demand their Labour council call off their attacks.
Hundreds of strikers, who are in the Unison union, marched through the streets and converged at the site for the council’s new headquarters in the Whitechapel area.
Social worker Linda said, “I’ve been shielding since February, it’s taken quite a lot for me to come out. But I felt too isolated at home, I’m a steward and I’ve always been on a picket line.”
Strikers have held nine days of walkouts against the Tower Rewards scheme—a new contract with worse terms and conditions forcibly imposed on 4,000 workers in July.
Tower Rewards, pushed by Labour mayor John Biggs, attacks workers’ travel allowances, severance pay, flexitime scheme and pay increments.
Social worker Siobhan was picketing outside Mile End hospital, her workplace on Monday morning. She said she was looking forward to “showing our true force” by coming together at the central strike rally.
“There’s power in numbers,” she told Socialist Worker.
A Unison-sponsored ad van slamming Biggs drove around the borough on strike days, causing enormous cheers to erupt from picket lines as it circled round Tower Hamlets.
Roz, who workers in an adult mental health team, said working during the pandemic was difficult but “We’ve pulled together to make the service work.”
“The fact that we’re getting a slap in the face for doing this, it feel like we’re not valued.”
Heather said, “We’re not just doing this for us, we’re doing this for people who live in the borough as well. We want to protect their services, and protect their workforce.”
“It’s not ideal to strike during a pandemic, but you have to make a stand and we were backed into a corner,” she said.
Siobhan agrees, “The community came together to support one another in the pandemic, the staff has come together to support each other during the strike,” she said.
On Whitechapel Road, strikers occupied the street and stopped traffic. A heavy police presence, including two on horseback, eventually forced strikers to stand on the pavement to hear speakers.
Roz is a manager of a day centre and has been conducting home visits throughout the lockdown.
She said workers had been “pushed into a corner” by the Biggs administration’s insistence on deploying Tower Rewards.
“It was difficult organising a strike in a pandemic but it felt absolutely necessary. It’s a Labour council basically implementing Tory rules—it’s outrageous.”
The worker’s strike ballot runs out this week—and the key question is whether they will ballot for more action.
“Hopefully they’ll be balots for further action, whether it’s for indefinite strike action or for three days I don’t know,” said Linda.
She said that the strike was having an impact on the service, “I know that senior managers are having to go to court for example.”
Petra, who has worked for the council for 25 years, said she was fighting because, “It’s not fair what’s going on, it’s like the managers are laughing but our pay grades are going down all the time.”
“I love being on strike to show them we are serious. If more people got involved then it will be much better. We need to get together, fight together and show these people we’re serious.”
“I’m enjoying the strike 100 percent, I haven’t got anything to lose.”
Around 1,500 Unison members are striking—but the changes affect thousands more across three other unions.
GMB and NEU union members returned overwhelming votes for action, but they are yet to walk out. And 19 months into the dispute, the Unite union claims to be organising a strike ballot soon.
Strikers have shown great bravery. They have proven to every trade unionists, every worker—and every boss—that it is still possible to resist.