Thousands of striking workers marched and rallied in Tower Hamlets as members of NUT and Unison took action together as part of a strike against the council's budget cuts that will make hundreds jobless.
Countless schools and local government workplaces across the borough were closed for the day. Others had their functioning severely reduced, and most big workplaces had lively, well-attended and high-spirited picket lines. Pickets at the Phoenix and Central Foundation Girls' Schools turned their section of Mile End Road into a miniature carnival for several hours in the morning, keeping up a constant stream of noise, which was added to by incessant horn-hooting from supportive drivers-by – in cars, buses and lorries.
In a period where strikes are often reduced to mere protests and picket lines mere gestures, many Tower Hamlets pickets took the radical step of actually trying to function as picket lines and disrupt the functioning of the workplace, including by arguing with scabs and attempting to turn them away. Although some non-union workers (and a small number of union members) cross the picket line at Central Foundation, some were persuaded to turn away.
A march which began at Weavers Fields in Bethnal Green heard speeches from local activists before setting off on a route that took it to Tower Hamlet's border with the city of London, where some of the worst poverty in the entire country sits side-by-side with some of the most obscene wealth. It mobilised around 2,000 strikers and supporters.
There had been a controversy about the location of the rally, which took place at the London Muslim Centre (attached to the East London Mosque). Some activists were worried that holding the rally in the LMC would be seen as an endorsement of the mosque's right-wing leadership as against the secularist-democratic elements within East London's Muslim communities. That debate will undoubtedly continue in the local working-class anti-cuts campaign (and rightly so), but on the day strike rally itself – and not the debate over its location – that was the focus.
In introducing the rally, Laura Rogers (the president of the East London Teachers' Association) situated modern-day working-class militancy in Tower Hamlets within the historical traditions of the borough, mentioning the Bryant & May strike, the Poplar rates rebellion and the Battle of Cable Street.
The spirit of Poplar is currently casting a long shadow over working-class politics in the borough, at least in negative. The Labour-independent leadership of the council (backed up by the alleged leftists of Respect) are acquiescing completely to Tory cuts, passing on a cuts budget rather than standing up and fighting back as Poplar did. Unfortunately, the Socialist Workers' Party and their allies – who hold some important positions in the local labour movement – are desperate to let them off the hook. The SWP's John McCloughlin told the rally from the platform that Tower Hamlet's wealthy, possibly-corrupt and cuts-happy mayor Lutfur Rahman was “a good and honest man” who “genuinely didn't want to make cuts”. This follows a mini-scandal in the local anti-cuts campaign, Tower Hamlets Hands Off Our Public Services, which erupted when Rahman was allowed to hold the THHOOPS banner and lead its feeder march to the TUC demonstration on 26 March.
The mood of the rally was militant, although subsequent reports (from the Workers' Power group, for example) that “Tower Hamlets workers” have, en masse, “thrown their weight behind the call for a general strike” are unfortunately exaggerated; the “general strike!” chants were led by SWP members and didn't get much take up in the room. Mark Serwotka's calls for immediate coordinated strike action on public sector pensions did get a very widespread wide of applause, however. Whatever criticisms we might make of the demagogy and hypocrisy of a bureaucrat like Serwotka, who takes home a fat pay-cheque and whose actions rarely match his words, his call should surely be a focus. Immediate coordinated strike action around an issue like pensions is the first building block in the struggle to create conditions in which a general strike might become possible.
As Camden NUT members struck on the same day, the Tower Hamlets strike give us a glimmer of what might be possible if socialists and other grassroots militants can force their union leaders to act. This was only two unions taking action for just one day in just two boroughs, but it has given workers there a taste of their potential power. If the buoyancy and confidence of the Tower Hamlets strike can be extended and turned into a struggle for more action inside Unison and the NUT, we can hope to see more workers on strike for longer in a greater number of places in the very near future.