On 6 July, Tower Hamlets Labour council intends to implement a plan, “Tower Rewards”, to sack its entire 4,000-strong workforce — carers, caretakers, children’s centre workers, housing and homelessness workers, refuse workers, cleaners, social workers, teaching assistants and many, many others — and re-employ only those who will accept substantially worse terms and conditions.
Key elements include reducing severance pay on redundancy; a longer working week; ending automatic incremental pay progression; cutting shift, premium and overtime payments; and abolishing the flexi scheme.
So much for valuing and supporting frontline and other key workers in the context of the Covid-19 crisis. So much for valuing the lives of BME people in the light of the Black Lives Matter protests (this is a heavily BME workforce).
The council leadership planned to impose the new contracts in early April. Unions won big majorities for strike action; then, as the lockdown started, the unions suspended the strikes, and, eventually, the council postponed the imposition. Now, still in the midst of the Covid-19 emergency, they are back on it.
Tower Hamlets workers who are members of Unison will strike on 3, 6 and 7 July, with some safe, covid-distanced real world picket lines, plus virtual pickets and a virtual rally.
Earlier on the GMB and NEU were also due to strike. The council tried to stop the NEU calling its strike ballot, using the Tory anti-union laws, but eventually backed down. Since then those other two unions have withdrawn from the action.
Only six councillors have broken ranks and even mildly criticised this assault on the borough’s working class. Local left activists say one of Tower Hamlets’ MPs, Apsana Begum, has been supportive of the workers; the other, Rushanara Ali, much less clearly so.
Local Labour Party activists have been very supportive, but have had to negotiate numerous obstacles from the local party hierarchy. Members in Bethnal Green and Bow eventually succeeded in passing policy to oppose Tower Rewards and support the workers, but are having to fight to get action on that from their officers. Members in Poplar and Limehouse have not yet been able to get past the various obstacles and pass policy.
Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs has repeatedly argued that this was a “non-political” decision taken by senior council staff. The idea does seem to have come from council Chief Executive Will Tuckley, a high-paid transfer from Tory Bexley, but that doesn’t make it “non-political”.
The Labour leadership under Corbyn and McDonnell said nothing about the council’s outrageous moves. Naturally, neither have Starmer and Rayner.
Despite all this, local Labour members are organising with other left-wingers and labour movement activists to support the strike. They need the strongest possible outside support. Do what you can to help them win.
This also raises two wider questions in the Labour Party:
The shutting down of party democracy makes it even easier for Labour councillors and others in positions of power to evade accountability to members and affiliates. We need to end the lockdown on democracy and win the right for local parties to start meeting formally, discussing meaningfully and taking decisions.
And where is the campaign to reverse council cuts by winning more funding from the government — or even to stop the new round of drastic cuts that is coming? Why have Labour councils put so much energy into provoking conflicts with their communities and workers, and so little into building campaigning alongside them to reverse cuts and win decent funding?
• Please add your name to this statement “Don’t sack council workers” — already signed by 500 labour movement activists and others in a few days — here
• You can send solidarity messages here
• More on campaigning against council cuts at fightcouncilcuts.carrd.co