"We're showing them we're not weak" - Tower Hamlets workers strike again

Submitted by AWL on 15 July, 2020 - 7:36 Author: Interview with Amina Patel
Tower Hamlets strikers

After strikes on 3, 6 and 7 July, Tower Hamlets council workers will strike again 15-17 July to overturn the “Tower Rewards” scheme attacking their terms and conditions. Tower Hamlets Unison’s adult social care convener Amina Patel spoke to Sacha Ismail about their fight. For ways you can support the strike, including picket lines, donations and solidarity messages, see the Tower Hamlets Unison website. Please also add your name to this statement.

We’ve been overwhelmed by the support we’ve had since the action began. This dispute has been on the cards for over a year, but with the pandemic we’ve all been occupied with other things, working from home, then the date was put back when the council postponed the changes. The strikes have really relaunched our momentum. The virtual rallies have been great and so have the picket lines. At Albert Jacobson House, on Roman Road, we expected a dozen pickets but we had about thirty the first two days and forty on the third – despite so many workers being at home. It’s been really powerful.

It’s obviously hard to assess the impact when people are at home, but we’ve sent out a survey to our members and had hundreds of responses already. Lots of people are taking strike action, despite very difficult circumstances in which many people’s partners are furloughed or out of work.

We’ve had strong support from Labour members (over a thousand have signed the open letter), from our MP Apsana Begum and now from eleven councillors who’ve come out against the plan. That’s important because it shows how isolated [executive mayor] John Biggs and [chief executive] Will Tuckley are on this. They are pressuring councillors and the workforce to push this through but hardly anyone actually agrees with them.

As well as from Unison nationally, we’ve had support from from lots of union branches locally and across the country. That’s solidarity, but also I think knowledge that if this can happen to us it can happen to anyone. Of course this is not the first case of a Labour council attacking its workforce recently but it is particularly glaring and also represents a major fightback.

It’s a very important dispute because councils are facing further cuts after the pandemic. There are going to be a lot more restructures, and we have to start the resistance now.

The council’s own statements say that 1,400 workers are still formally refusing to accept the new terms. There is no reason to take their figures as accurate. But even if they are it shows there is a very wide layer of people defying them. Of course there is nothing to stop people who have accepted the new terms from striking.

We’re currently planning how to make the next three strike days even better so please help us. Come to the pickets and virtual rallies. Send us messages. Donate to the hardship fund. But the key thing is inform yourself about what’s going on and spread the word and get organised.

There are so many ways in which the council’s behaviour is outrageous. They’re attacking their workers, many of us key workers, in the middle of the pandemic. They’ve told a remarkable number of lies about what’s involved.

To give you a sense, just the cut in the travel allowance will cost me personally £596 a year. People are losing massively, losing thousands of pounds, and women and BME workers most of all.

John Biggs and Will Tuckley stood in Mile End Park and took the knee for Black Lives Matter; their hypocrisy is staggering, they are materially increasing inequality in the borough. This is something we’ve tried to point out. They won’t even do an Equality Impact Assessment. In fact they won’t even give us the information we need to do our own. They’ve lied, blatantly lied, that they don’t have the information we’ve asked for, and then accused us of lying because we haven’t completely our impact assessment. Everyone knows it is BME workers losing the most: it’s a matter of putting exact figures on that.

How would you respond to the objection that councils have no choice, when they’ve lost most of their funding?

First of all, we know their spending priorities are completely wrong. They are paying consultants millions of pounds a year to do nothing useful. They are paying top managers huge salaries and expenses – Will Tuckley is on £237,000. Believe it or not, Tower Rewards actually boosts salaries at the top. If we’re going to make cuts, it should be to the white men in power, not the BME women at the bottom. And this is the pattern in most if not all councils.

The wider thing is, where is the campaign to get more funding? They use this excuse but they are not fighting the government for more money.

They obviously feel that confronting the government is too hard, but confronting the workers is easy, because we’re weak. We’re showing them we’re not weak.

The issue of anti-trade union laws has come up in the dispute?

Yes, the council has used Tory anti-union laws in various ways at various points in the run up to and during the first strikes. Even aside from this outrageous behaviour, the law make the whole thing so much more difficult. We had to give the council notice of our upcoming strikes dates ages ago, before the first round, before our members could even discuss what they wanted to do. These laws are all designed to sap time and energy. We should be campaigning much harder to repeal them, but we also need to make sure they don’t grind us down. You have to work hard and build the momentum regardless of the restrictions imposed on you.

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