Tower Hamlets UNISON calls for solidarity in ongoing contract campaign

Tower Hamlets UNISON’s members are calling for solidarity with their ongoing campaign against Tower Hamlets Council’s imposition of hated new terms and conditions.

Thus far six days of strike action – with hundreds joining picket lines across the borough and many more attending virtual rallies – have still not brought management or Tower Hamlets mayor to the negotiating table. Another round of action looks likely in mid-August.

The July strikes came after UNISON had suspended action planned for March in respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and only invoked its mandate in response to Tower Hamlets ending its truce with the imposition of detrimental contracts on July 6.

The Labour-run council used Section 188 of the Trade Union & Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 ‘sack and re-hire’ powers, condemned by their own party leadership when used by British Airways, in order to force new contracts rejected by GMB, Unite and NEU as well as UNISON members. The NEU with some 2,000 members had also voted for strike action and surpassed the 50% threshold, but ultimately chose not to join the action. 

From the beginning, CEO Will Tuckley tried to side-line the recognised unions. The package of changes branded as ‘Tower Rewards’ was presented to staff in a coordinated marketing campaign before it had even been discussed with unions. Workers were told to attend ‘HR workshops’ at the same time as senior management were treating union officials with such contempt that regional officials from Unite, GMB and UNISON lodged a formal complaint. 

Though eleven councillors have now signed an open letter calling on directly-elected Mayor John Biggs to change course – and more Labour councillors are sympathetic – Biggs has persisted with year-old claims that the dispute is driven by ‘rogue’ local union officers whilst his own response is that of ‘a proud trade unionist’ in ‘mainstream’ Labour.

But this attempt looks increasingly desperate as the Labour movement lines up to condemn his actions. UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis told the first of four inspiring virtual rallies: “Mayor Biggs is so, so in the wrong… For a council to be doing this in the middle of a pandemic crisis is not only wrong but immoral.”. 

At a virtual rally on July 16, TUC regional secretary Sam Gurney and NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney both called for the council to negotiate, telling strikers they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them. Both local CLPs, Poplar & Limehouse and Bethnal Green & Bow, have called repeatedly for the attacks to end.

Led by local MP Apsana Begum, Socialist Campaign Group Labour MPs John McDonnell, Richard Burgon, and Nadia Whittome all called for Mayor Biggs to withdraw his anti-union actions. Baroness Shami Chakrabarti said “We’re supposed to stand with working people… It’s very shaming to be in this position.”

And Diane Abbott, telling Mayor Biggs to “back off”, reflected: “How sad that in a part of London with such strong associations with the Labour movement a Labour council is treating its staff in this way – using Tory legislations to drive down terms and conditions.”

The new terms and conditions restrict flexible working, reduce starting salaries for the lowest paid roles, while boosting salaries for a group of staff already paid £40,000 or more, and reduce shift allowances. Unions have repeatedly called for a proper equalities impact assessment because those most affected – workers on low pay and in part-time work – are disproportionately women, black, Bangladeshi, or workers from other minority ethnic groups. 

And as the Tories plot their response to COVID through a wave of redundancies and still more privatisation, the ‘Tower Robbery’ reduction of severance pay should worry us all nearly as much as the precedent of a Labour Council using ‘sack and re-hire’ powers to try to crush unions.  We must not let that stand.

How can you show solidarity?

  • Pass motions of support at your local union branch and CLP – and tell John Biggs and his cabinet:
  • Write directly to CEO Will Tuckley, Mayor John Biggs and his cabinet 
  • Join a Twitter storm between 5 and 6 pm this Wednesday 29 July #ShameOnBiggs: 
  • Follow the strike and support the virtual actions: 


  • Marc Lancaster is Trade Union Liaison Officer for Bethnal Green & Bow CLP 

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