This report was written after the third day of the strike by Tower Hamlets council workers against the imposition of new and inferior contracts on a broad cross section of workers, from social care staff to school kitchen workers, mental health workers and environmental officers. LGR was active at an unofficial picket line on the council’s vehicle depot in Silvocea Way, and talking to workers at other picket locations in the borough. We’ve written about actions and conversations with striking workers in previous reports, as well as putting forward our views on what would be needed to amplify and broaden the effect of the workers’ action.
// Firstly, the Silvocea Way picket. This became symbolically important because unlike some of the other demonstrations, it’s aimed at enforcing and if possible spreading the strike among groups of workers not represented by UNISON, the local government workers’ union: refuse truck crews and school bus drivers. Those workers did not cross the picket line when we were standing physically in front of the exit gate from the site. On strike day 1 (Friday 3rd July) it took 4 hours for the police to force the picket away from the gate. On day 2, (Monday 6th) approximately 10 pickets – a mixture of UNISON members and supporters, including comrades from our East London Wildcat group – were more aggressively policed, with one person being arrested then ‘de-arrested’ for highway obstruction. Vehicles left the depot no more than an hour or so later than their normal 5am start time. On day 3, a smaller number of pickets made a token demonstration.
// UNISON has declared this first round of strike days as a ‘success’, and at the time of writing has announced another set of strike days for the coming week, on the 15th, 16th and 17th (Wednesday-Friday).
// Our other focus has been talking to workers at ‘official’ picket lines, including outside the (closed) Ideas Store in Whitechapel. An Ideas Store, by the way, is what they used to call a public library. We want to know what the strikers are thinking and planning, which aspects of the new contracts are most intolerable, how they see the strike developing, what outcomes they expect and what ideas they have about strengthening the action – including drawing in effective support from local working class residents. // On strike day 2 we talked for some time with a social worker based in the Royal London Hospital. For her, the worst aspect of the new contracts – apart from the insulting manner of their imposition – are the reduction in flexible working hours and the 80% cut in severance (redundancy) terms. This chimed with other conversations we’d had with strike on day 1. Flexible working, when the job permits, is really valuable to workers who have unpredictable family and other commitments; they see it as an efficient way to operate the service, as well as something that gives them the chance to have some ‘work-life balance’.
This worker told us that her team has been under surveillance from what sound like ‘time and motion’ consultants since last summer. She was clear that this is all gearing up to the council making redundancies, and that this is what’s behind the reduction in severance payment provisions in the new contract; that as soon as the new contract is in place, the sackings will start. This chimes with what we’ve heard about councils’ plans elsewhere: for instance in Croydon, where the council is seeking a 500 reduction in the directly-employed staff headcount (about 15% of the workforce). She explained that there was simply no way the service could be maintained with fewer workers, and that ‘everyone knows’ management will need to bring in agency staff to fill gaps and comply with the council’s statutory duties – but that this is part of the plan, since outsourced staff would be cheaper and costs put through ‘a different budget line’. We’ve noted previously that Tower Hamlets council reported being out of ‘usable’ reserve cash at the end of its last financial year, while holding some £230m of ‘unusable reserves’.
// On day 3, one of us reported as follows: // “I felt that the atmosphere on the picket at the ideas store yesterday was broadly pretty positive – there were a range of faces I hadn’t seen before, and quite a lot of apparent support from passers by on foot and in cars. // I spoke for a while to a woman in I guess her mid fifties, who was on a temporary contract working for the council in their careers service. She said this was unusual, that most of her (especially full-time) colleagues were permanent, and that she’d been re-employed on temp contracts twice in the 18-odd months she’d worked there. She thought this was illegal. // She had been involved with Tower Hamlets Labour, and was feeling pretty disillusioned with both the national and local party, after the election but also with the way that the council was treating her and her colleagues. She also mentioned something about how the Mayoral election had felt like a huge stitch up, and how left-labour types had been railroaded there. Seemed pleased to see people out in solidarity and was feeling hopeful about the strike a) in itself and b) as something outside of Labour politics.
// I also chatted to someone who had worked at the library for 7 years, and was feeling positive about the strike. She was really chuffed to see people from London Renters Union, Extinction Rebellion and us lot coming down, and in particular thought it was great that Deliveroo workers had turned out. We chatted about how important organising outside of mainstream unions and workplaces was, especially in the platform app/gig economy sectors, and warehouses. // She talked about the relatively high union density and militancy amongst council workers, but was annoyed that the other two main unions at the council (GMB and Unite) hadn’t got their shit together to strike at the same time. // In terms of strategy, she wanted to continue with the strike but was aware that the reduction of services under COVID, combined with only Unison being out meant that the council can adjust to the strike without much real disruption – she was pleased about the refuse centre being potentially somewhere to make things actually difficult for Tower Hamlets council. // She also mentioned how the big response to this strike suggests that people see it (like she does) as almost a test case for the kind of thing that councils across the country will be doing in coming months, with the economic downturn. Said that because of thi,s it needs as much attention as possible city-wide and nationally. We talked about how public sector workers facing similar problems in different workplaces need to try and coordinate. // Overall, I found it heartening all round on the picket outside Ideas Store yesterday, and think we should definitely get down next week”.
// Overall, we don’t have a clear sense of whether the strike will harden and spread, or continue on the same track in week 2. Rumours of the refuse vehicle crews wanting to join in (their contracts will probably be changed in September) suggests the pickets at the depot have been worthwhile. But if they continue next week, greater numbers will be needed to make them work and resist police interference. Will UNISON publicly ask people to go to Silvocea Way, or will they want to restrict it to the small presence of last week? What role could ‘outside’ groups have in forcing the issue by calling down supporters – and what are the risks of such an escalation? For instance, one picket becoming a single symbolic and therefore vulnerable focus, when there are plenty of other sites such as schools, day centres and council offices where staff continue to work who might be persuaded to join, as long as it doesn’t mean vulnerable people being left high and dry.
// We’d like to see more local working class residents, workers and supporters on the streets next week. The 5am unofficial picket at Silvocea Way is a pressure point, but it’s certain management there will call down the police once again, so if you want to go there, go early, be prepared for some cop harassment, and go with friends. // It’s more relaxed at the official pickets, where there’s perhaps more opportunities to meet and talk to different groups of workers involved in the strike. Check on the day, but the locations are likely to be: Albert Jacobs House (62 Roman Rd, E2 0PG) John Onslow House (1 Ewart Place, E3 5EQ) Mile End Hospital (Beaumont House, E1 4DG) Mulberry Place (5 Clove Crescent, E14 1SA) Poplar Idea Store (Chrisp St Market, E14 0EA) Tower Hamlets Car Pound (Commercial Rd) Whitechapel Idea Store (E1 1BU)