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Council staff to strike during pandemic as talks with Tower Hamlets break down over ‘4,000 sackings’

PUBLISHED: 12:46 23 June 2020 | UPDATED: 15:39 24 June 2020

Postponed Tower Hamlets workers' strike to go ahead on July 6. Picture: Mike Brooke

Postponed Tower Hamlets workers' strike to go ahead on July 6. Picture: Mike Brooke

Mike Brooke

A strike by 4,000 Tower Hamlets workers is going ahead during the Coronavirus emergency next week after the latest talks with the unions broke down.

Unison'’s John Mcloughlin... Unison'’s John Mcloughlin... "New employment contracts are flawed, highlighting role of essential workers in Covid crisis." Picture Mike Brooke

Staff including key workers plan to walk out for three days on Friday, July 3, and the following Monday and Tuesday.

The strike which the unions suspended at Easter when the pandemic emergency began is over new working contracts is now going ahead after all.

Present employment contracts are being ended on July 6 and all employees switched to new agreements known as Tower Rewards which the unions claim ends allowances and employment rights with inequalities that hit lower-paid workers.

Those who don’t sign the new contracts would be deemed sacked, the Unison trade union claims.

Belle Harris... Belle Harris... "Assurances can and will be ignored as the new contracts mean all existing rights become null and void." Picture: Mike Brooke

“The new contracts are fundamentally flawed in increasing pay in the top of the organisation,” Unison’s branch Secretary John Mcloughlin said.

“The flaws have been exposed throughout the Covid 19 crisis which has highlighted the role of essential workers and the need to address inequality.”

Workers are to be re-engaged on the controversial new system. But Unison is blaming the council for not being willing to postpone the change so further talks could take place and “more distance could be put between the peak of the pandemic” and any potential confrontation.

Strikes are going ahead with socially distanced pickets and protests outside main council buildings, while staff working from home because of the lockdown are to withdraw their labour remotely.

The council insists it has been consulting staff and the unions since January last year about changes to work conditions.

But latest talks at the government’s conciliation service Acas failed to reach agreement on June 18.

A town hall spokesperson said: “We have been consulting with our staff and trade unions about changes to terms and conditions since January 2019.

“Our aim has always been to reach a collective agreement. This had not been possible in our meetings with both local and regional officials, so we asked ACAS to work with all parties to support conciliation. Talks took place on Thursday. June 18.

“It is hugely disappointing that these did not result in a resolution and that Unison has now issued a formal notice of intent to strike. However, we continue to urge the trade unions to come back to us so we can swiftly find a solution. We remain hopeful that unnecessary strike action can be avoided, especially during the current pandemic.”

Unison was poised to go on strike on April 13 just before the lockdown, but postponed any action because of the emergency.

Assistant branch secretary Kerie Anne said: “It’s shocking and perverse that the council would use aggressive sacking and re-engaging the workforce to change contracts without consent, especially on those providing critical services in the pandemic, sometimes at a personal risk to their own safety.”

The council spokesperson added: “Despite many councils cutting staffing budgets, this package includes measures to increase annual leave for most staff and raise the salaries for hard to fill posts such as social workers.

“This will be funded by reducing severance payments which are paid on top of our enhanced redundancy package. That means we will invest more money in our existing staff rather than those who leave.

“Our current terms and conditions have not been updated for over a decade and, as a result, they are out of date, inconsistent and do not support the flexible approach to services that our residents increasingly expect.”

The authority delayed the switch to new contracts at Easter, which now start on July 6, in the hope that the strike that was postponed by the union can be avoided during the pandemic.

But it now faces unexpected condemnation this week from retired Labour councillor Belle Harris, now in her 80s, attacking the council for trying to switch to contracts she says allows them to sack anyone without notice.

“Whatever assurances are given can and will be ignored,” she told the East London Advertiser. “The new contracts mean all existing rights become null and void.”

Belle, a councillor for 19 years for Bethnal Green before retiring some 20 years ago, was also a thorn in the side of the mayor wagging her finger at him during a cabinet meeting in 2017 while campaigning to stop nurseries being closed down. She still hasn’t forgiven him for closing down meals-on-wheels for the elderly in January.

The dispute over staff contracts involves the whole 4,000 workforce including social workers, transport, parking, children’s centres, benefits, council tax, career service and ironically environmental health staff.


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