Without Precedent: Our East London Fight for Fair Terms

On the first day of the strike of council workers in Tower Hamlets, what is the strike over and what does it mean to strike under socially distanced conditions?

It might seem audacious to mount an all-out strike during a global pandemic, but we were left with little choice. We couldn’t have envisaged this over a year ago, when the uncomfortably-named Tower Rewards contract was announced as a done deal by senior managers at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets — and without any advance warning or negotiation. Staff across the Council reacted immediately, with over a thousand attending mass meetings and voting decisively against the new terms.

Joint union discussions succeeded early on in removing a few of the more clearly disliked original proposals, such as requiring staff to work an extra hour a week without pay. But the Council has throughout been very unwilling to enter serious or sustained negotiations on the core of the proposals, which include:

  • Slashing Severance Pay by at least 80% and capping pay outs.
  • Reducing starting salaries for the lower-middle pay bracket.
  • A substantial reduction in the Flexi-working/TOIL scheme.
  • Travel allowances cut by £596 with more restrictive eligibility criteria.
  • Night work supplements starting later (from 9pm).
  • Market supplements replaced and restricted.
  • A review of Special Leave entitlements (which cover emergency, bereavement and house-moving leave).
  • Removing protections around disciplinary and grievance procedures by making them non-contractual. This will offer less protection to TUPE transfers and reduce consultation if changed in future.
  • No payment for travel time in the new Mobility Clause and limited compensation for excess travel costs.

A great concern to staff has always been the swingeing cuts to severance pay coupled with the Council’s ongoing commitment to “cost-cutting”, despite the preceding decade of redundancies and restructures across many departments. The prospect of sending workers outside the borough (at extra cost to themselves) to keep their jobs is also disturbing. We were already worried about the prospect of increased redundancies in such an unstable economy. But the Council made it clear that it would seek to sack and re-engage all staff under the new contracts on 13th April 2020 rather than enter serious negotiations — a draconian measure for a Labour authority to take, utilising anti-union legislation brought in by the Cameron government and opposed by the Party at the time. Despite the length of time the dispute had continued, staff remained hotly opposed to the new contracts, and against the odds UNISON was able to secure a mandate for strike action, no easy feat under the current laws.

Then, in late March, the COVID-19 lockdown began and all staff were suddenly operating in emergency mode, providing essential services for residents at very little notice. We agreed the ethical decision was to postpone our strike during this terrifying time, so we could support our community. The Council paused imposition of the new contracts and we continued to work and volunteer as much as possible, with frontline staff in particular bearing the brunt of the risks. We remember the sad loss of our colleagues Yusuf Ali, David Last and Irvin Moyo to COVID-19 and are terribly aware that the borough saw an 86% death increase overall during March–June 2020, one of the most severe rates in the country. The Council published many communications praising staff highly for their hard work and dedication. Then it announced that the new date for the sacking and re-engaging would be Monday 6th July, and refused to extend this further.

The UNISON branch has been operating remotely throughout the pandemic, continuing to provide support to members. We have had to carefully plan for an action we never hoped to take: organising a safe, socially-distanced strike with PPE-supported pickets across seven different sites.

We are gladdened by how much support and positive reporting we have had so far, including from local and national press, community groups and other trade unions, and would encourage people to continue to support us when they can.

We are appalled that the Council can on the one hand talk about how essential our work is, and how much service we give to our communities, while on the other hand remaining committed to making our work harder, more stressful and less secure. In May, Mayor John Biggs wrote of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BAME residents, acknowledging himself that these outcomes were the result of existing racist inequalities and pledging to work to tackle them. Yet the Council has never acknowledged the disproportionate negative impact the Tower Rewards changes will have on the lowest paid and most vulnerable staff, and how they will increase inequality under worsening conditions; despite many requests from UNISON for thorough equality impact assessments of the proposals, these have never been provided. But we already know that BAME staff, disabled staff and women are predominantly represented in the lowest pay grades and the more insecure jobs, and that they will be the hardest hit among us. We naturally welcomed the council’s recent removal of the statue of notorious slave-trader Robert Milligan from outside the Museum of London Docklands, following the hugely important Black Lives Matter actions (which our branch has always stood in solidarity with, in the face of racist aggression). But while such symbolic actions are important, they do not represent progress unless they are backed up with practical actions. It is incumbent on any employer, but especially a Labour-run local authority with such a diverse constituency and workforce, to serve and support the needs of marginalised and vulnerable people. When Mayor Biggs calls our strike ‘disappointing’, and the Council will not remove barriers it has itself created for its own most marginalised staff, then all its compliments for their hard work count for little.

Our first strike day has been a unique experience, with some of us masked up and carefully on the street (two metres apart of course!) while others have been working the phone bank, putting up window posters and keeping communications going across our temporarily atomised workforce. Our picket lines have been large and active, and seen so many members of the community coming to show their support. Seeing workers from other sectors understand our fight and refuse to cross our picket lines was truly heartening. Our first online rally was a huge success, opening with almost 350 attendees and hosting speakers including Apsana Begum MP, John McDonnell MP and UNISON General Secretary Dave Prentis. Ten Tower Hamlets Councillors wrote an open letter opposing our sacking and re-engaging. Despite police being called to our picket lines, the outpouring of support we have received from all over the country and even abroad has strengthened us. We know our fight connects with so many other struggles, and we must stay in solidarity always. Our employers claim to be ‘modernising’, but insecure terms and conditions such as these are from an unwelcome past; we are looking to the future.

With the global trend towards remote working increasing year on year, we believe this type of protest heralds one likely future of organising, where the “workplace” is digital, and is often inside our own homes, and we will not always get to speak with our colleagues in person, or even at the same time. We know how challenging it is to organise in these situations, and we hope our actions demonstrate that these challenges are far from insurmountable and that they too can continue to resist even in such difficult circumstances. We will not and cannot give up now. We will continue to fight both for ourselves and for other workers facing similar threats. We hope for your support, but most of all we hope that others feel able to challenge their own conditions, and say that they, too, are necessary, and that they, too, are worth more than mere words.


Tower Hamlets Unison (Equalities Officer)