Fact Check: a response to Mayor Biggs’ email to Labour Party members on Tower Rewards

This week, Mayor John Biggs sent an email to Labour Party members about Tower Rewards, and our strikes against the package. Biggs is under pressure, and is trying to gaslight our members. We have responded to his various claims below.

The Mayor says: ‘It’s disappointing that UNISON members felt they needed to strike’

UNISON’s Response:

The focus of the Mayor’s public disappointment has consistently been targeted at UNISON. This gives the incorrect  impression that only UNISON members object to the  Tower Rewards contract. In reality the objection is widespread:

  • UNITE  and the NEU  remain in a formal trade dispute about Tower Rewards with the council alongside UNISON. The NEU were due to take strike action alongside UNISON prior to the lockdown but  suspended action due to Covid-19, as did UNISON.
  • Unite have reported  that they have now served a formal ballot notification on the council
  • Members of all NJC unions (Unite, GMB and UNISON) repeatedly voted in the majority to reject Tower Rewards in all ‘1 member 1 vote processes’ throughout 2019 and 2020
  • While UNISON’s legal strike ballot broke through the anti-union strike threshold, the GMB’s did not although the vote was strongly in favour of strike action
  • On the 6 July 2020 the council  imposed Tower Rewards on the majority of its workforce by sacking and then rehiring them on the inferior contract. At that date only 30% of the workforce had signed the new contract – despite staff being subjected to a campaign of intimidation/misinformation by the council and the Head of HR to try and get as many as possible to ‘voluntarily’ sign.
  • The  low take up by council staff is the best evidence that the vast majority of the workforce, regardless of their trade union status, do not believe that  Tower Rewards is  ‘modern’ or ‘rewarding’.

The Mayor says: ‘The new contracts invest more than £2m in pay and conditions’ 

UNISON response:

This claim seems to have appeared for the first time in February 2020.   It contrasts with the Corporate Director of Finance’s statement to unions that Tower Rewards delivers a £2m pa saving, or the Chief Executive’s claim that it  financially breaks even. The council has refused to provide  unions with a comprehensive financial analysis so they can  independently assess any of these claims. The refusal to provide this information means it is reasonable to suspect that the latest claim is a manipulated figure. If Tower Rewards did genuinely invest an additional 2 million £ (pa?) to enhance staff pay and conditions it is likely the entire workforce and all trade unions would have welcomed it.

The Mayor says: ‘The new contracts came into effect on Monday. Despite UNISON’S warning, nobody lost their jobs’

UNISON’s response:

This is a deliberate misrepresentation. On Monday 6 July 2020 the council dismissed the majority of its workforce ( 2/3rds ) so it could  impose the inferior Tower Rewards contract on them.  ‘Sacking and re-engagment’ is a rarely used  and aggressive legal tool employers can opt to deploy to change contracts of employment without consent. It is most commonly used in the private sector  to drive down pay and conditions. Employees are formally issued with written notice and at the end of the notice period dismissed and then rehired on the new contract. If an employee does not acquiesce to the new contract they are out of a job with no right to a redundancy payment.

All council staff were issued with  a formal termination notice on the 6 January 2020. Those who had not signed the new contract were dismissed on the 6 July 2020 then subsequently rehired on it. That a Labour council would serve mass termination notices, sack and re-engage the majority of its workforce to force through contractual changes is astonishing, and even more so in the context of a pandemic when many of these employees are essential workers.

The Mayor says: ‘Social workers and other hard to fill roles have seen a pay rise…or increases in annual leave ’

UNISON’s response:

Many social workers refused to sign the contract and this is an occupational group which have noticeably turned out in force on picket lines. While it is accurate that some receive access to  additional base salary increment/s, what the Mayor has not revealed is that this is being coupled with the removal of a market supplement some have been paid for three years and that all social workers will see their travel allowance cut by 596£ pa. This means that  many social workers employed as part of the Ofsted improvement journey  see little benefit to their overall pay package. Some object to Tower Rewards because of negative changes to other terms and conditions that are not pay related. Many first tier social work managers have taken part in strike action as they believe the new pay spine is fundamentally unfair to them.  It is  overly simplistic to infer that social workers are positive about Tower Rewards.

Other grades which gain a small additional amount of annual leave  would have received this anyway as part of the current round of NJC national pay negotiations.

The Mayor claims: ‘Everyone will benefit from our new rent deposit scheme, updated special leave allowances and other changes. Any adversely affected by an element of changes will see their pay protected for 2 years or until pay rises mitigate loss.

UNISON’s response:

Tower Rewards is a multi-element package that varies a large number of terms and conditions.  The Mayor has omitted to itemise the many terms and conditions that have been detrimentally changed. Such as permanently lowering the entry point for some grades below SO2, cutting the travel allowance and introducing a mobility clause with limited financial compensation, to name but a few. The ability for staff to access special leave for domestic violence situations already exists in a stand alone staff DV policy so this is not a new benefit, just a repackaging of an existing one.

Members of all unions have consistently voted to reject the overall package as the negatives far outweigh any benefits. The introduction of a rent deposit scheme is a trivial addition  (which only a handful of staff will ever make use of) when juxtaposed next to the many terms and conditions that are being detrimentally changed. Essentially the council is offering us a few crumbs while it snatches away a loaf.

The Mayor claims : ‘It was suggested that an equalities analysis was not carried out’

UNISON’s response:

The council has released a blizzard of material it purports to be equality impact information. But it is nothing more than an exercise in data manipulation, obstruction and obfuscation. The high level summary spread sheet referred to by the Mayor is plainly inaccurate. It gives every single group an average % increase in salary . This is impossible as it is a straightforward fact that the majority of the workforce see no increase in base salary from Tower Rewards, which only increases base salary in the top third of the council but cuts entry pay lower down. We know that these lower grades are disproportionately women and BAME.

UNISON has not been able to undertake an independent equality assessment as despite the council’s document  ‘blizzard’, the basic data required has not been released.

The Mayor claims: ‘the strike at its high point had about 14% of staff participating….’

UNISON’s response:

This figure is disputed- more than 14 % presented at socially distanced picket lines alone, and  overall 1200 people attended three virtual on line strike rallies. Many staff  were subjected to inappropriate strident management instructions demanding they reveal in advance if they were striking, even though managers are not entitled to dictate they tell them. Many rightly refused to divulge this information.  It was disappointing, but predictable, that the Mayor would try and downplay the impact of the strike, in the same way he has sought to downplay how widespread the disapproval of Tower Rewards is amongst the workforce.

There is no doubt that striking in a pandemic under socially distanced conditions is a unique occurrence, especially as many staff continue to work from home and no one quite knew in advance how it would pan out,  but overall it has been  judged as an overwhelming success. Not  least because of the resulting national publicity  the dispute has attracted.

The Mayor says: ‘Currently the council spends 1.7 m a year on additional severance payments and we think reducing this and investing the money in increased pay is the right thing to do’.

UNISON’s response:

It is UNISON ‘s  understanding that the  council spent 1.7m over 3 years on severance, not in 1 year alone. Only the top third of the workforce receive a pay rise whilst the majority get nothing. Furthermore, savings are only made by cutting severance if a significant number of staff are made redundant. There is significant unease amongst staff that the slashing of severance is a precursor to mass redundancies on the cheap. The spend on severance  (which provides a reasonable cushion to people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own)  is miniscule when compared to the spend on consultants.

The Mayor claims: ‘We entirely respect the right of staff to strike’

UNISON’s response:

This claim stands in stark contrast with the Mayor and the council’s conduct. This council  has embraced and zealously deployed the Tory anti- unions laws to their full extent – even the optional elements it is under no obligation to use, which the Mayor has then sought to justify. This has been done under the guise of ensuring ‘legal compliance’.

In January 2020 UNISON’s Regional Secretary sent an open letter to Mayor Biggs slamming the council’s conduct and accusing it of acting like an ‘unscrupulous private company not a Labour run council: – ‘ It is a disgrace that your council is using the most anti- union piece of legislation in recent years, enacted by a Conservative government determined to diminish workers’ rights, to try to prevent union members from using the only remaining tool they have to resist the imposition of new contracts that they have not agreed to. …I urge you to consider the actions of your Labour council, not only in the way they have handled receipt of our ballot notices but also in the disgraceful way they are seeking to bully our members and your staff.’

Such behaviour includes, but is not limited to:

  • Repeated threats  by the Chief Executive to UNISON that the council would seek an injunction to stop its ballot going forward
  • Similar threats to the NEU culminating in the council filing an application for an injunction at the High Court, only to withdraw it at the eleventh hour  in the wake of public outrage
  • The banning of UNISON branch officers from using the council’s email system to communicate with members about Tower Rewards
  • The Head of HR attempting to deter workers from striking by sending all staff an email  dishonestly inferring they would lose their continuous service if they went on strike (they don’t)

But most significantly, this Labour council has sacked and rehired the majority of its workforce after it could not obtain their consent to change their contract of employment. They have done this to key workers in the middle of a pandemic.  By any reasonable standard, this is truly shocking.

We hope to see you on the picket line.