Hundreds of strikers rallied at Newham council buildings and depots in east London on Wednesday of last week. They were part of a strike in support of Unison union branch chair Michael Gavan, who has been suspended from work.
Around 85 percent of Unison council workers had voted to strike on the day before Michael’s disciplinary hearing took place in opposition to the Labour-run council’s attempt to sack him on charges related to his trade union activities.
Across the council Unison members joined the action, closing schools and disrupting services.
“All of us came and stood on the picket lines,” said one worker from Salisbury school.
“We wanted to show our support for Michael. He has represented us and we are not going to let the council sack him.” The picket line, made up of low paid teaching assistants, was lively and exciting. No one crossed it.
Around 30 teaching assistants had joined the union in the two days before the action by calling into the union office saying they wanted to join the strike.
At the refuse and cleansing depots, solidarity was shown by members of the T&G section of Unite who refused to cross picket lines despite managers trying to get them into work.
Mark, a Unite member, told Socialist Worker, “Solidarity with our Unison friends is more important than the details of the anti-union laws. A picket line is a picket line.”
Several workers joined the union on the picket line and stayed out on strike.
Picket lines rapidly swelled into protest demonstrations across the borough.
Migrant workers were among those who joined the union or turned back when they met the picket lines. “People feel so strongly about this. Some who you might not expect to picket have joined in. They were there because they know the person they can rely on is faced with the sack,” said Gloria Hanson from social services.
Workers in privatised sections such as parking attendants began talking to union reps about organising for union recognition.
“Its time we got the union bug,” said one. “We don’t have representation and they have not been paying us overtime or sick pay.We need to be like you.”
Around 250 pickets joined a lunchtime rally to support Michael. Vicky Easton, head of Unison’s Greater London region local government, joined picket lines early in the morning.
She later told the rally, “This is an attack on our trade union. These are trumped up charges. We can’t allow our elected reps to be treated in this way. We have to do everything we can to stop them.”
Rousing applause and an emotional standing ovation greeted Michael when he pledged to continue fighting for the members who elected him.
He told the meeting, “They say I represented the interests of the members and not the council – well I am proud of that. What this is really about is privatisation and I will never give up fighting to stop our public services being put in the hands of the profiteers who won’t deliver any kind of decent service to the people who most need council services.”
The meeting pledged to continue the fight – to step up strike action, hold more lobbies and pickets and to demand that all funds are withdrawn from Labour until Michael is reinstated.
Two days after the strike, angry housing department workers walked out of a management called briefing on planned redundancies into a mass meeting headed by Michael and the GMB union full time officers.
The workers had asked Michael to come and represent them, as the campaign for his reinstatement has forced the council to back down on the instruction that he could have no contact with council staff.
The walkout was held in protest at management bullying towards union reps who had called a pre-meeting to discuss the lack of consultation.
Everyone was outraged by the way in which jobs are being deleted and recreated on new terms and conditions – which include greater flexibility.
After a meeting which was held in the street, everyone marched back in behind Michael and the GMB reps.
After the management briefing, in which shouting and interruption from senior managers continued whenever the union reps spoke, a second union meeting was held.
It was agreed that we would not give in to bullying and would stick together.
We have demanded paid time off work to discuss the proposals collectively and will be formulating alternative structures of our own.
Messages of support – phone Newham Unison on 020 8555 9351 or email firstname.lastname@example.org