Striking key workers picket Tower Hamlets Council to stop new work contracts being imposed
PUBLISHED: 15:03 03 July 2020 | UPDATED: 13:31 07 July 2020
Doctors joined hundreds of striking key workers across the East End who have been picketing Tower Hamlets Council today to stop new employment contracts being imposed on them.
They took part in social distance demos outside council offices on the first of three days of industrial action which had been postponed on April 13 because of the Coronavirus crisis.
This was followed by an online rally staged today jointly by the Unison council workers’ union and the campaign to keep the NHS public which attracted 300 people.
“The Covid emergency affects low pay workers more, who can’t work from home,” Dr Jackie Applebee told the rally.
“They have to use public transport which isn’t ventilated where you can’t be at ‘social distance’.
“Council workers are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, yet now they’re being sacked on Monday to be re-employed on new contracts. It’s absolutely disgraceful. This is a fight we all have to take on.”
Criticism also came from Unison’s national general secretary and from two MPs about the “Tower Rewards” contracts being imposed on 4,000 staff on July 6 that unions say cuts severance pay and reduces employment rights.
Unison’s Dave Prentis told the rally: “We cannot condone such bad behaviour while we’re still in middle of pandemic. It’s absolutely immoral in a democracy being sacked and employed on worse conditions.”
The town hall insists it has been urging the unions since January last year to find a solution quickly. Talks at the government’s conciliation service Acas failed to reach agreement on June 18.
But time has run out with the impending “no deal” and the new contracts being imposed on July 6.
“No-one wants to strike in such circumstances,” Unison’s Dave Prentis added. “But we have no choice.”
An open letter is being sent today from 10 Labour councillors urging mayor John Biggs to scrap the new contracts altogether, with the Covid emergency showing how vital the key workers are.
The mayor in response said he was “disappointed” by the strike action, adding: “For the past 18 months the council has worked to seek collective agreement on changes to our contracts. The management has made significant changes to the package and around 1,300 staff have already opted into the new contract, far more than voted for this strike.”
The package invests an extra £2.3m in pay and conditions, increases annual leave for many staff, introduces a new rent deposit scheme and increases special leave for staff facing bereavement or domestic abuse, he points out. Withdrawing the package now “would mean staff missing out on these”.
He added: “I understand that Unison are unhappy about this change, but with ever tightening budgets it is hard to argue that spending £1.7m a year on severance is the best use of taxpayer money.”
The 90-minute rally which ended at 1pm called on the authority not to sack those who refuse to sign by Monday.
The contracts were originally set for Easter Monday, but the authority made a U-turn and agreed to put the move back to June 6.
The unions want them scrapped altogether, claiming they reduce pay for newcomers, cut severance pay by 80 per cent, reduce flexible working and affect some entitlements and working conditions.
Today’s joint rally with doctors also called to defend the NHS in the run-up to its 72nd anniversary on Sunday.
Campaigners say “the public has been let down while frontline staff have done an extraordinary job over the past few months”, caused by years of NHS undermining and underfunding and now “bad government decision-making” during the pandemic.
They are gathering outside the Whitechapel Idea Store tomorrow (July 4) at 12 noon, for a socially distanced display of banners and placards calling for better funding, free health care for all and an end NHS checks and charges on immigrants.
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