Unison strikers in action, July 2020. Photo: Facebook/Tower Hamlets Unison Unison strikers in action, July 2020. Photo: Facebook/Tower Hamlets Unison

Lucy Nichols speaks to a Tower Hamlets Idea Stores employee and activist at the heart of this crucial defence of pay and conditions

Why are you striking?

I think that the strike is immensely significant and is the frontline of labour relations in Britain at the moment.

Tower Hamlets has introduced a range of changes to our pay and conditions, and although it’s been exacerbated by the pandemic, this issue has been going on for 18 months or 2 years, which is when ‘Tower Rewards’ was originally introduced.

The council has used a range of misinformation and manipulation to try and force this package on the workforce. It’s a multi-element package which contains detrimental terms and conditions. There are a few positive changes to our terms and conditions, but these are quite limited, and far outweighed by the detrimental changes. Some of the significant changes are a permanently lowered entry point for lower paid grades, a cut to travel allowance and a mobility clause that doesn’t have compensation. This means that some members of staff will have to be more mobile and willing to move without compensation.

It increased the base salary for the top third of employees, but it cuts the entry pay further down and disproportionately affects women and people of colour.

The mayor has stated that a positive to Tower Rewards is that social workers get a pay rise. They do get some base salary increment, but they also lose a market supplement that they received, and they lose their travel allowance, which is worth about £600 a year. Many of the social workers are striking because of the negative change to their pay and conditions.

How long has this dispute been going on for?

The dispute has been ongoing for eighteen months. On 6 January, we were issued with notice that the council were going to use sacking and reengagement of two thirds of the workforce. Now this is a very rarely used and aggressive tool from the Labour council, it’s more commonly used in the private sector. We were issued with formal notice, and at the end of this notice period – on Monday 6 July – we were sacked and re-hired.

The council have continued to use aggressive tactics to enforce Tower Rewards; the mayor has issued false figures, claiming only 14% of staff went on strike – when more members than this attended the physical pickets. Staff were asked to divulge whether they were striking to their managers, and we’re concerned that slashing of severance payments could be a precursor to a mass sacking on the cheap.

Tower Hamlets has a Labour council – what’s the significance of this? What’s the support from the rest of the Labour movement been like?

Obviously at the moment it’s immensely significant that the Labour Council are introducing this. I think it’s not just an issue within the Labour party or with Labour members, but it’s unusually problematic in the broadest sense; with workers across the country facing cuts, changes to pay and conditions and redundancies on a massive scale.

Strikes have been very well received and largely supported within the Labour movement. Eleven local councillors have signed a letter of support, we’ve had very well attended picket lines – socially distanced of course – and very big online rallies, with between 300 and 600 people attending. Diane Abbott, Richard Burgon and Shami Chakrabarti have all attended.

We’ve heard nothing specific from Keir Starmer, unsurprisingly. He has condemned the treatment of frontline staff when he’s been speaking with Boris Johnson, but he hasn’t specifically mentioned our strike. He’s condemned the way British airways are treating their staff, who are in almost exactly the same position as us, but again he hasn’t specifically mentioned us.

In relation to the Unions, Mayor John Biggs often states that he’s very disappointed with Unison and that we felt the need to strike. He singles out Unison for his disappointment, despite the fact that the other unions are supporting us. Unite and the NEU are actually in a formal trade dispute over Tower Rewards at the moment. The NEU were due to strike along with Unison, but they didn’t due to Covid-19. The council have also used very aggressive anti-union Tory tactics on us, and called the police on legal pickets – even having someone arrested.

That leads me on to some extra information about Unison and our strike; we actually called off our strike in the early days of the pandemic, in order for council staff members to take up frontline work to support the local community. Council staff have been manning emergency helplines, covering shifts at hostels, delivering food packages and patrolling local parks. We’re very much on the frontline in relation to doing emergency work.

Tower Rewards was originally suspended during the pandemic, but the council have rewarded us for our hard work by the reintroduction of the scheme on Monday 6 July. Since then we have instigated a range of strikes, starting with one day, followed by three days. We will be striking again in August.

Tower Hamlets workers have announced that they will be striking on the 14, 15 and 17 August. They will be balloting for further strike action in September.

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