On Friday 17 July activists from Socialist Alternative went to show solidarity at a picket for Unison Members who work for Tower Hamlets council. They are on their second round of strikes as they were disgracefully sacked and then rehired on worse conditions last month. We interviewed two of their members to ask about the dispute and its wider importance during Covid-19. This dispute is particularly shameful because its being done under a Labour-led council!
Bob, SA member
So we’re down here in Whitechapel talking to Tower Hamlets Unison members, on the second round of their strike action against the against Tower Hamlets Labour Council. Could you just tell us briefly what the essence of what this dispute is about?
Roxanna, Unison member
In a nutshell, it’s about our terms and conditions and them being imposed. Essentially, we’ve all been sacked on 6 July. We’ve had new terms and conditions imposed, which we don’t agree with. We were on very good contracts before where staff members were looked after. It’s disgraceful that a Labour council is using Tory tactics on their employees. A lot of our councillors are local, local people. A lot of our workers are local people. And the equation just doesn’t match up that you would do this to your own community.
Anthony, Unison member
I’m Anthony, I’m a social worker in homelessness.
And what’s the mood of your colleagues on this issue?
We’re very disenfranchised from the whole process. We’re very disappointed that the whole thing has been shoved through. We were told that it was going to be put on hold during the Covid situation, and then they sneakily put it back through. The real disappointment for us is that we’re frontline workers. We’ve had to face this Covid situation full on. All my colleagues have worked 12-13 hour days to come from this epidemic and this is what the attitude of the council is.
How solid has the strike been with you and your colleagues?
Within the social work group that I work with? It’s been very solid. It’s a little unfortunate that other unions haven’t been able to mandate for strike action. But I know personally within my group that three of my colleagues have now changed unions as a result within the last few weeks.
Have you had any support? Are there signs of rifts within the local Labour Party on this?
Yeah, most definitely. I think we’ve definitely got a core group of Labour councillors who are on board with us. I was speaking to a Labour councillor yesterday. And I’m encouraged to hear that she actually did take a taping of our feelings and she was going to go back and share that with her Labour colleagues.
How how determined are you? Are you going to stay fighting until you win?
So definitely the mood is that we are really energised when I’m here with the group of people that we’re all like minded people and the fact that we’re all actually coming together. Once you see everybody together, you kind of know that actually what we’re doing is right and then when we go on the online rally, you see actually, this is not just something that is coming from a personal point of view, it is collective and there is a unity. And ultimately, I know from my point of view, that I want to fight as long as I can, because actually I have a huge responsibility for not just Tower Hamlets. I think the whole of London and the whole of the borough councils all across the country are looking at our families. We have now an even bigger responsibility to fight this. For me, it’s that responsibility as well as the local one that means we will fight on as long as we can. And hopefully, we win. Unfortunately, we have got a pandemic, in the midst of all we’re doing, and that that brings in added complications in how and how well we can do things. If the pandemic wasn’t here, we’d be on the streets doing a rally, we would be walking places.
What about the view from the public? Do you getting any feedback from local people?
Yeah, I’m encouraged when I walk home from here with my T-shirt on (supporting the strike), I get positive affirmation from the general public.
Yes, in fact, when they come and talk to us, they’re really disgusted. And they are saying this is disgraceful for a Labour council to do that to its employees, particularly at this time. When keywokers are needed, you don’t pretend to help us one day and then slap us down with conditions a week later, I mean, it’s just disgusting really.
A majority of staff haven’t signed the contract. So I think that reflects a lot. And the bullying tactics, which included giving pay incentives to people and sending letters out to people saying that if you didn’t sign the contract, and you turned up to work the next day, we would assume you have signed, all those bullying tactics have really disappointed, and in fact, entrenched me even more into wanting to take action against it.
That’s brilliant. I think your dead right about being watched by other councils, I think this is a real test case, others can find out how to organise their members, how much support they can get.
Having the online rally with others Unison Members across the country has been really great , very important!