Striking UNISON members

UNISON members working across all departments of Tower Hamlets Council will be taking three days of strike action from 15-17 July as part of the long running contract dispute known as Tower Rewards. This comes hot on the heels of an initial three days of strike action which ended on the 7 July.

Earlier in July, despite the pandemic, strikers donned masks, grabbed bottles of hand sanitiser, and took to socially distanced picket lines around the borough while those working from home ‘downed tools.’ In addition to this, nearly a thousand people attended three virtual strike rallies organised by UNISON during the first period of industrial action.

This long running dispute escalated on Monday July 6th when the Labour led council sacked two thirds of its workforce so it could impose new ‘Tower Rewards’ contracts on them. The vast majority of council staff had refused to sign the contract as it detrimentally changes a wide range of terms, conditions, and allowances. These include large cuts to severance pay, reduced starting salaries, and more. Despite a protracted campaign by council bosses to try and get staff to ‘voluntarily’ sign up, the majority had refused.

Discussing the proposed contract changes, UNISON Convenor and Social Care worker Amina Patel made clear their opposition:

It’s an affront that the Mayor and council say that no one will be worse off because of Tower Rewards and that it doesn’t increase inequality. As a modestly paid BAME woman I personally get no pay increase, but my allowance will be cut by £596 a year. The Council’s Equality Assessment is definitely dodgy. The whole thing is a robbery, that’s why I will be striking again.

The council’s insistence on pushing ahead with the action towards the borough’s essential workers at such a precarious time is drawing widespread condemnation from the local community and nationally. During the initial period of industrial action, council bosses called the police on peaceful picketers outside the Town Hall and the council’s transport depot, where two people were arrested. Let’s Get Rooted, a collective working in London on worker organisation has provided day by day coverage of these events during the first three strike days.

Discussing the strike, UNISON Assistant Branch Secretary, Kerie Anne noted how strong opposition to the proposed contracts is:

Mayor John Biggs and the Chief Executive have pulled out all the stops to try and downplay both the impact of the strike and the level of opposition to Tower Rewards, but they have failed miserably. The very fact they had to sack the vast majority of council workers to impose this contract is testimony to the degree of disapproval. Few can believe they would treat key workers in the middle of a pandemic in such an appalling way. But they can still do the right thing and change direction – or face another strike.

Due to falling income and rising costs from the coronavirus crisis, many councils in England are facing a funding shortfall, with several councils facing outright bankruptcy. The cuts by Tower Hamlets Council and the struggle against them by workers may represent the first of many similar situations in the coming years.

You can find more information on the background of the dispute here.

Image credit: UNISON

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