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Sick of the system
ON 7 February, council workers in Tower Hamlets, east London went on strike. They walked out because of a new sickness procedure that the New Labour-dominated council imposed last September. The strike is a first step to force the council to throw out this draconian policy.
A Tower Hamlets UNISON, member
The policy sees the implementation of a 'trigger point' system - which means if workers are sick for three days in six months or five days in one year, they must report every day of any subsequent absence to 'First Assist'. First Assist, based in Croydon, is a call centre where they ask you why you're sick, what you are doing about it and when you will be back at work. There are only a couple of qualified occupational health nurses on site.
Not only do staff have to ring the call centre, in addition to calling their manager, on every day off sick, but also those on long-term sick leave have to do the same. The calls cost 10p per minute.
Some workers have had their sick pay stopped and the council has threatened to take any excess, not correctly reported leave, off annual leave (although as yet, they have not been able to implement this).
The council introduced this policy to try to live up to the government's unrealistic targets for local government. In Tower Hamlets there is a higher then average absence rate but rather then look at the reason why, the council prefers to bully its workers into coming to work when they are sick.
Tower Hamlets is one of the poorest boroughs in the UK. Is it any wonder that this impacts on the staff - many of whom live in the borough?
There was a 75% 'yes' vote for the strike. It was a success, with two of the council flagship 'Ideas Stores' and many other council buildings closing, including the Housing Benefits office. There were pickets on most major council buildings.
The council has contacted UNISON to open up discussions.
To make this campaign a success there must be unity of all the unions that represent local government workers. The GMB must listen to its members and ballot for strike action. The campaign must be broadened out into the community and increase the action.
UNISON's affiliation to New Labour also needs to be raised. This dispute is a perfect example of the need for a new party to represent the working class.
In The Socialist 16 February 2006: