Strikers protesting against council decisions. Source: Lucy Nichols Strikers protesting against council decisions. Source: Lucy Nichols

The betrayal of workers in Tower Hamlets cuts deeper as it is brought about by Labour council and Mayor, reports Lucy Nichols

In the second day of the second week of strikes, Unison members in Tower Hamlets have picketed various council buildings across the borough. Workers are striking over changes to their contracts that leave them far worse off.

Severance pay has been cut, part time workers have lost the ability to work flexibly, and there are fears of redundancies – all while those working in higher up positions are given a pay rise. Thousands have been sacked and re-employed under the guise that the new contracts are a step towards modernisation and will allow for a pay raise for social workers.

One social worker picketing Mile End Hospital described this as a form of Orwellian ‘double-speak’. Only social workers in managerial positions, or who are newly qualified, will actually feel any benefits from the new contract. The rest face job insecurity and have had many benefits cut; for example, they have lost their free travel into Zone 1 (Central London). The reality is that the vast majority of those working for the council are facing serious, detrimental changes to the way they are expected to work.

When interviewed, many on the picket lines voiced how demoralised they felt at the forced contract changes – and the attitudes of their employers on the whole. One striker described how she had worked for the council for 28 years, and how cuts and rollbacks have been the norm for years. This particular dispute, for example, has been going on since late 2018 (and therefore cannot be blamed on the economic crisis brought on by Coronavirus).

Workers join a socially distanced picket. Source: Lucy Nichols

Furthermore, strikes were originally planned for March – but Unison members decided against this; they felt they were needed as essential workers during the pandemic. Most of those on strike have worked all the way through the pandemic, despite the very obvious risk to their own health. In fact, two social workers contracted the virus at work and tragically passed away as a result. Workers have described how they are being taken advantage of by the council – they care very deeply about the residents they are paid to support. The council knows this and is using it to slowly chip away at the rights of thousands of people committed to helping their community. One Unison member commented that this had been going on for years in London, with councils gradually removing the support available to residents in favour of privatisation and gentrification.

The actions of Tower Hamlets council perfectly demonstrate this. As another Unison rep put it, they ‘don’t care about the East End community’.

Furthermore, the Tower Rewards scheme affects women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds disproportionately. Changes to work hours have a detrimental effect on part-time workers, many of whom are single mothers who rely on flexible hours to be able to care for their children. One worker expressed her anger that despite the global support of the Black Lives Matter movement, black workers in Tower Hamlets had been left behind by the council.

Striking workers are not only angry at the reckless actions of their employers, but feel betrayed that the Tower rewards scheme is being implemented by a Labour council and a Labour Mayor. John Biggs, who has been the mayor of Tower Hamlets since 2015, is a key proponent of the new scheme. Strikers argue that this is only because it allows him to give a pay rise to his colleagues and friends in the council. As one striker aptly put it; John Biggs is a Labour mayor but has been ‘going blue along the way’.

Please support the strikes:

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.