An open letter to Tower Hamlets and Newham refuse workers:



On the 18 September 2023, it looked like Tower Hamlets and Newham refuse workers were going to make 25 September a historic turning point in the year long public workers strike movement. On 18 September, Tower Hamlets refuse workers started their militant strike to win a pay rise or at a minimum maintain their current pay scale, which is higher than the pay of most refuse workers employed at other Councils. The other main demand of the strike was to win a guarantee that agency workers would be hired to fill all job vacancies. Newham refuse workers had voted to join the Tower Hamlets strike on 25 September. Striking together both groups of refuse workers were in a position to win far more than either strike could win alone. Dennis Carabott, who had been sacked by Newham Council for fighting for his co-workers and had signed up 50 Tower Hamlets agency workers to join Unite, was starting his Employment Tribunal case. What could have been a three-way victory for all the struggles ended up being a series of coordinated defeats, orchestrated by Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham and Unite Regional officials Nick West and Simon McCarthy. 

Tower Hamlets refuse workers lost big time. Their campaign for a just settlement began on 18 September with a militant and inspiring strike that included stopping scab trucks from entering or leaving the facility. Tower Hamlets refuse workers were betrayed after only a week by Unite Regional Representative Nick West. West and the Unite leadership was so eager to shut the strike down that they had us vote on a management proposal on 25 September 2023 that neither West nor any other Unite top had signed off on. The new Tower Hamlets settlement is nothing more than a hands down victory for management and a monumental defeat for the workers. 

In Newham, Unite Regional Representative Simon McCarthy succeeded in killing off the refuse workers’ strike before it even started. McCarthy engineered an unlawful vote on a settlement that won nothing but a one off £750 payoff, which we will not receive until the national pay dispute is settled. Both Tower Hamlets and Newham refuse workers can and must prepare new strike action to win new settlements. Neither the Tower Hamlets nor the Newham settlements can be allowed to stand because they set new and dangerous precedents.

Newham and Tower Hamlets refuse workers can begin new settlement negotiations right now.  We both still have the legal right to strike. The strike ballot we voted for in August was a vote on whether or not we authorized the union to strike to win a decent national pay rise. Since we voted to strike, and the national dispute remains unresolved, we can still strike without organizing a new ballot. In both boroughs, management has already agreed that under the current strike we can negotiate a local settlement. We need to get rid of West and McCarthy and the sellout stewards who betrayed us. We need to elect a Strike to Win Committee in Tower Hamlets, and in Newham, we need to get our elected Strike to Win committee on its feet and fighting. We need to get our demands met by the two Councils now. We gain nothing by delaying, the time to fight is now.

Tower Hamlets workers deserve the truth

In this open letter we are providing a copy of the only document any workers received prior to the 26 September 2023 settlement vote. This letter is written to be incomprehensible. We are therefore providing an analysis of what is contained in the settlement. 

Point 1 of the new agreement lists the current benefits we are about to lose including additional annual leave and our three day Christmas leave for the remainder of this year. It states that the £750 one off payment we will receive is to cover the annual and Christmas leave time we are losing.  It also describes a new annual leave pay system in which union members who are working a 35 hour work week will no longer be entitled to full time leave of absence benefits. The last sentence in Point 1 on long service benefit will be discussed below. 

Point 2 of the agreement describes the process the Council will use to fill vacant posts with agency workers. This section states that agency workers will be paid a lower salary and graded at a lower pay rate.

Point 3 discusses the formation of a new “staffing group” that will consist of Tower Hamlets management and one Tower Hamlets Unite Branch Officer.

Point 4 of the agreement states that the £750 payment we are receiving as a substitute for our annual leave time will also be used to cover the pay we will be docked for striking.

A detailed analysis of the agreement is provided below to show how the specific language in the agreement was designed by Tower Hamlets Council with Unite sellout leadership to confuse us into voting for the settlement.

It has been more than two weeks since we voted on our new settlement.  We are still waiting to receive a copy of the settlement from Unite officers. It is absolutely necessary for Tower Hamlets workers to demand to know if the letter included with this open letter is different from our new settlement. If our cowardly and dishonest stewards tell us that our new settlement is different we must demand that they tell us what is and what is not included in our settlement and produce a copy of the settlement immediately.

The anatomy of a sellout:

Lies, tricks, scams, plots and deception, and more lies – how Tower Hamlets workers ended up with one of the worst settlements we have ever received

In Tower Hamlets, Unite regional official, traitor and con artist Nick West engineered an unexpected  whirlwind vote on one of the worst settlements of all time. West lied to workers about every point in the  agreement. He literally told us the opposite of what the settlement actually says. What we were asked to vote on was probably a first offer from Tower Hamlets Council. What we agreed to is their dream list of every concession they wanted from us.

To avoid being caught for recommending this sell-out to us, West did not call a union meeting before the vote. We never had a full union discussion on the proposal.  He was never forced to tell us why he recommended we vote yes on the proposal. So he and his steward con artist were able to lie to each of us individually or in small groups about what they claimed we were gaining from the settlement.

West purposely held the vote on 26 September when he knew that the only people who would have been able to decipher the dense and deceptive wording of the proposal and tell us the truth about what it actually says would be tied up at Dennis’s Employment Tribunal hearing, instead of on the picket lines as they usually were.  West and Tower Hamlets management both knew that Dennis Carabott, his American lawyer Shanta Driver, his longtime official Unite advocate and strike leader, Alex Owolade would be at Dennis’s Employment Tribunal. Ms. Driver’s two American legal team members Mark and Caroline who had been on our picket lines and other Movement for Justice members had to be at Dennis’s hearing, especially since Tower Hamlets refuse workers could not attend the hearing because we were needed on the picket lines.

Dennis signed up fifty agency workers to join Unite. He was their leader and in Dennis’ absence the agency workers, many of whom are recent immigrants to Britain and not fluent in english, were ignored and kept segregated by West and treacherous Unite stewards.The agency workers were treated like invisible outsiders instead of like a welcome and needed addition to our union. When some agency workers demanded to know what was in the agreement they were told the lie that they would all get permanent positions. If Dennis or any of the people who had to be at his hearing had been available to read and explain the agreement, it would have been voted down.

Unite officers’ misinformation and deception get a settlement voted up

West and the Tower Hamlets stewards, who acted as his lieutenants, had no problem gleefully lying to our faces. They used inscrutable language in the proposal to defraud us. They manipulated our trust in them to con us into voting yes on a terrible agreement. 

For example, West and company deceived members who asked where it said that our wages would remain the same, by telling them that since the proposal contained no language on pay, nothing would change. Similarly, if a worker asked whether we were going to lose wages because of our strike, they referred us to Point 4 which says “No salary deductions for the strike action will be in the September pay run” and ….“£750 payment will be payable in the October 2023 pay run” when our pay would be deducted because of our strike. This led some workers to understandably believe that we would not be penalized pay for our strike. This was just a bold faced lie.

None of our Unite traitors bothered to tell us that £750 payment was already allocated for another purpose. In Point 1 it says that we will receive “a one off lump sum payment (subject to tax and NI) for the equivalent to additional annual leave up to 31 March, 2024.” The new agreement also requires us to forfeit our three days of paid Christmas leave this December.

The terms for our annual leave days will also change in April 2024. Currently any worker who is contracted to work 35 hours a week or more is classified as a full time worker. So they receive the same amount of annual leave and Christmas leave days as other full time workers, including those contracted to work 40 hours a week. This will change in April. To receive full time annual leave benefits and Christmas leave benefits, a worker must work 37 hours a week to be classified as full time. Workers who are contracted to work 37 hours a week or more will receive a small increase in benefits. These workers will receive 26.4 days of annual leave time and 3.17 days of Christmas leave time. The change in the number of hours needed to qualify as a full time worker, probably means that job vacancies filled by agency workers will be on 35 hours a week contracts. 

This agreement states that “Entitlement to long service benefits will begin to accrue from 1 April, 2024.” This unclear statement can mean one of two things: first that eligible employees who have already accumulated years of service that count towards long service benefits will lose credit for the time they work in the next 6 months; or, what is more likely, that the Council is saying and Unite top officials have agreed to is that high seniority workers will lose credit for all the time they accumulated for long service benefits. 1 April, 2024 will count as the first day used to compute long service benefits.  Undoubtedly the Council assumes that this will lead to a lot of full time employees retiring and being replaced by agency workers.

The worst betrayals of the agreement are below

Remember the wage freeze we were told we had won and the guarantee that all the agency workers would get permanent positions as Council employees – both of these claims are a fraud. No one would have voted for this proposal if they had been told the truth.

Our new settlement explains in Point 2 of the agreement that “the Council will look to recruit as many agency workers to establishment posts, subject to the agency workers undertaking a simplified recruitment process.” This purposely confusing sentence in the agreement gives the Council the right to cherry pick which agency workers it will and will not hire. This settlement is not just badly drafted, it gives the Council the right to sack the strongest agency workers.

Segregation and second class treatment of agency workers

The next sentence says “Agency workers will be “ringfenced” for posts.” No one apart from a solicitor, barrister or financial advisor to top corporate executives and union officials know what the term “ringfencing” means. The term “ringfencing” is used by sleazy corporate executives to let their board members know that they have secret plans to segregate and super exploit some group of workers who are listed in the same classification as other workers. Since corporations are almost always required to issue public reports available to their employees that include a tally of the number of workers in each job classification, employees have no idea that there is a subset of workers that management intends to use to divide workers and make huge profits. 

In this case, Tower Hamlets is saying publicly that they intend to place agency workers in permanent full time refuse jobs. However, Tower Hamlets was completely open with top Unite leaders, including Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham, that it intends to treat agency workers hired by the Council’s waste management department as segregated second class workers earning less wages and put into a lower pay grade. Newly hired agency workers will be ruthlessly super exploited. 

The Council states specifically what their plans are for “ringfenced”, segregated agency workers. Unite traitors know that the 50 agency workers just recruited to join Unite tend to be younger, black and/or recent immigrants. Unite top officials and Tower Hamlets majority Bangladeshi Councilors believe that they can hide behind people’s assumptions that they would not discriminate against black, and/or immigrant workers to set up an apartheid system among Unite members who are Council employees. Buried in a sentence in Point 2 on the hiring of agency workers the settlement states “Employment {of agency workers} will be on the grade for the post and placement on the salary scale will be to the nearest match to the workers’ current salary”. Since agency workers are paid less than current Tower Hamlets refuse workers, this sentence means that permanent Tower Hamlets refuse workers will be divided into a two-tier wage system.

This settlement must be replaced immediately with a new settlement or before year two of the agreement, every Tower Hamlets refuse worker will take a pay cut. We know this can happen because Unite officers already let Newham Council get away with this. 

Dennis was terminated to keep him from continuing to fight for loaders to be regraded from grade 3 to grade 5, which many of them were before 2017. A re-grading exercise by Newham Council and sanctioned by Unite officers that was supposed to result in all loaders being moved to grade 5, resulted in all loaders, including those already in grade 5, downgraded to grade 3.

All Tower Hamlets refuse workers will receive a pay cut

We were lied to when we were told that our pay levels would be protected by this agreement. The fact that the settlement does not say that current Tower Hamlets refuse workers will receive a pay cut is because openly saying that would have defeated passage of the settlement. 

The mechanism for instituting an across the board pay cut is in Point 3 of the settlement. Point 3 states that “a framework for regular dialogue with the staffing group will be set up” and “these discussions will be with one Tower Hamlets Unite branch”.  In other words, no rank and file workers will be members of this staffing group. This group will undoubtedly approve a pay cut for current refuse workers by 1 January, 2024 or a little later. The Council states in Point 2 of the agreement that it intends to put agency workers at their current salary into available vacancies by 31 December, 2023. Tower Hamlets refuse workers will go from being among the best paid Council refuse workers to being among the lowest paid Council refuse workers.

This settlement does not save our current pay scale, it shatters it in the most destructive way possible for our union.The greatest strength of our union has been our unity. We know right now if this settlement remains in place divisions between workers will deepen. 

Some agency workers chafing under their second class status are bound to be resentful of their more privileged co-workers who voted for this agreement. As soon as higher paid workers are busted to a lower pay grade some of them will blame the new agency workers. Expressions of racism and anti-immigrant bigotry are almost certain to arise. We will be in a constant struggle to stop some of our co-workers from directing their anger against each other.

We are respected and admired by the labor movement for our militancy and our bold strikes. This agreement will change who we are and weaken our union for a long time to come. 

We must get this settlement torn up and put in the trash right now, while we are united and strong. The longer we wait, the more we allow parts of this settlement to go into effect, it will be much more difficult to reverse what has already been implemented by the Council. We must act now. We can win but time is not our friend. Here are our immediate tasks: a) form a rank-and-file Strike to Win Committee to negotiate a new settlement, b) issue notice to management of a new strike date immediately; c) send Nick West and the stewards who betrayed us packing; d) refuse to relinquish control of our negotiations and strike to a new Unite Regional sellout; e) organize community and labour support. We can get the support of traders and residents because if we lose, the Council waste management department will impose steep increases for waste removal services. We must reject any advice Sharon Graham offers us and stop her from taking control of our negotiations.

If we fail to fight now we should brace ourselves for the hell we face. But if we fight now, not only can we win, we can inspire and teach the new wave of strikers entering the movement, how to fight and how to win.

Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham Must Resign Or Be Removed Immediately

Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham must have signed Unite onto the “ringfencing” of agency workers. She knew that most Tower Hamlets agency workers, who just became Unite members, are younger, black and/or recent immigrants. These workers are already separated from other Tower Hamlets refuse workers. Many branches of Unite are divided by race and ethnicity. Tower Hamlets is no exception. In the run up to the settlement vote, white union members tended to turn to white stewards for information, Bangladeshi workers tended to rely on Bangladeshi stewards for information and so on.

Graham must know that while Tower Hamlets refuse workers are united in action, which is the most important thing, the ethnic, race and nationality divisions within the union are taken for granted. Signing Unite on to “ringfencing” agency workers is not only racist and counter to every basic principle of trade unions, it is dangerous and potentially explosive.

The Unite tops agreement to the settlement was based on their attempts to permanently weaken and cripple the Unite Tower Hamlets refuse workers. Tower Hamlets workers are regarded as being too militant and too difficult to control. This agreement is  consistent with Sharon Graham’s politics and aims.

Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham is currently pursuing a “Brexit” style protectionist campaign, centering on the demand that the British industries only buy British steel. If adopted this proposal would lead to huge across the board price increases of everything and mass redundancies. Brexit was always a racist policy. It is now rejected by the British people. Recent polls show that only a tiny minority of British people would vote for Brexit if the vote was held today.  Passage of Brexit and non-stop immigrant and union bashing are the issues that will cost the Tories the next election. Graham’s strategy is to get the white racist workers who voted for Brexit to vote for the Labour Party in the next Parliamentary elections.

Finally, Unite is the largest donor to the Labour Party. Graham believes that shutting down all public sector strikes as quickly as possible must happen before Labour wins control of Parliament and Keir Starmer shows that his position of opposing our strikes has not changed. Shutting down the Tower Hamlets and Newham strikes by any means necessary is a key component of this strategy. 

If Unite members are still on strike under a Labour government, Graham will do everything in her power to shut down the strikes to try to cover for the betrayals of the Labour Party.  Doing the Labour Party’s dirty work will discredit Graham and make clear that her reputation of being a left wing, pro-strike union leader is wrong. Graham is the darling of many leftists because she has been turned into a progressive icon by them. Maintaining the support of the left is essential to her holding on to her job as Unite General Secretary. Protecting the Labour Party from showing that it is the enemy of workers is a fool’s errand.

One of the most important lessons of our strike wave is to place no confidence in the Labour Party. During the whole period of the Tory Government, Labor Party leader Keir Starmer has: 1) opposed our strikes and has threatened to suspend any Parliamentary member of the Labour Party who joins our picket lines; 2) has done nothing to oppose the racist, anti-immigrant policies of the Tory Government; 3) has given his support to the Tory Government’s economic policies which have created runaway inflation and 4) taken no action to protect oppressed communities from the onslaught of attacks by the Tories and their fascist gangs in the streets.  Starmer is responsible for suspending Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and other left wing Labor Party veterans on trumped-up charges of anti-semitism. If Starmer were in Israel, he would undoubtedly call the Israeli Zionists who are uniting with Israel’s Palestinian community to stop the government’s bloodbath in Gaza anti-semites. The treacherous Labour Party does not deserve a single vote of anyone seeking to make Britain a progressive nation.

Newham Workers We Can Win Our Demands But Only If We take Charge Of Our Negotiations and Strike To Win Now

The Newham refuse workers’ settlement gave us exactly one thing: a one time £750 “cost of living allowance” that is meant as pay off, to give us added incentive to vote up the next national pay rise no matter how bad it is. Simon McCarthy conducted a previously unheard of, unlawful text message survey/vote to force through the settlement. He held a joint meeting on the agreement with management to stop any discussions on the settlement at the only union meeting we had. The aim of the meeting was to threaten and intimidate anyone who would have argued for a no vote, if management was stopped from participating in the meeting. People who did receive the text message or received it but could not text their vote in, lost their right to vote on the settlement at all. People who voted yes but wanted to vote no on the settlement once they realized that, a yes vote, was actually a vote against striking and a no vote was for striking. These workers did not have an opportunity to change their votes to reflect their true sentiments.

We can get our settlement overturned and restart bargaining if we challenge the legality and legitimacy of the settlement vote. Even if the settlement remains in place we can simply negotiate a new settlement on all our pay and other demands not included in the settlement.

We must win our demand for the loaders to be reclassified to grade five. We know the only way we can win this demand is by striking. We need a pay rise now, not later. We just need to get rid of McCarthy and Costa now and take matters into our own hands. 

We took control of our negotiations, during our

last set of local negotiations in 2022. We made some gains. We learned from that experience what we need to do to win more now.

For the first time ever we have elected a rank and file Strike to Win Committee comprised of battle tested leaders. We are clear that we are fighting a two headed monster, Newham Council and our turncoat Unite officials. Tower Hamlets refuse workers showed that we can and must organize agency workers into our union. 

We know we have the support of the community. We can mobilize the people of Newham and local traders to force the Council to give us what we are fighting for, which are, in many cases, benefits we already had, but the Council took back starting in 2017. We depended on our weak regional officers to lead a fight to stop our downward spiral. We won nothing. Now we are strong enough to win back what was taken from us. We do not want waste to pile up on the streets. So we need to let the Council know the quickest way to get the rubbish off our streets is for them to give us what we need and deserve.

We are respected and trusted by this community. Local traders and customers at Queen’s Market will understand that if we win, they win. But if we lose, the Newham waste department managers will target Queen’s Market for closure again. Finally we know that lots of Newham residents, community activists and other Council workers are sick of Mayor Fiaz’s broken promises and preference for serving upscale Newham at the expense of working class and poor communities.

We have been devoted to this community. We have won the love, respect and support of this community because of our dedication to keeping the streets of Newham clean even at the cost of our own lives. We never stopped collecting waste during the pandemic lockdown even though many of us and our family members got COVID. We battle rats, pick up piles of stinking rubbish with our own hands. It is inevitable that sooner or later almost all of us will be injured on the job. We know that the people of Newham overwhelmingly believe that we work way too hard for such little pay. Newham could function perfectly well if the Council packed up and stopped meeting for a couple of weeks. But the Borough could not last  for a couple of weeks without us. 

We make enormous amounts of money for the Council. Our demands for better pay are more than fair and just. All we are asking for is that some of the profits we earn for the Council are invested in our wellbeing and the future of our families.

We have worked for too long under a management that bullies workers, uses favoritism to give jobs to  their family and friends and rewards corrupt and treacherous stewards. If we win our strike, we can get agency workers hired to fill vacancies at our same pay grade. We will also go back to work with our heads high and in a much stronger position to change the oppressive culture we have been forced to accept for far too long. We can tip the balance of power in our favor if we strike. If one of the things we win from striking is the power to stop the constant harassment we experience on a daily basis it will be worth every hour we spend on the picket lines.

12 October 2023

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