Short-changed in Tower Hamlets

NUJ member Eileen Short was made redundant on 13 January after working in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets press office for 14 years. She had been asked to reapply for her own job as part of a "reorganisation" and, though there were no other applicants, she was turned down. Eileen intends to pursue her case through an industrial tribunal.

Eileen Short with NUJ President Tim Lezard (L) and General Secretary Jeremy Dear (R): © Guy Smallman
Eileen Short with NUJ President Tim Lezard (L) and General Secretary Jeremy Dear (R)

Eileen's redundancy was pushed through despite continued appeals to the Council, and a campaign coordinated by the NUJ Chapel for staff working in the press office and on Tower Hamlets' newspaper East London Life, together with public service union Unison. There were two strikes and a rally in December, and a half-day strike on 11 January. The Chapel wrote to all councillors, and 52 MPs signed a motion condemning her treatment. Eileen received messages of support from the chapel at paid-for local paper the East London Advertiser, and from local freelances. Tower Hamlets Council and its Chief Executive refused all approaches on Eileen's case, including an offer from ACAS, the Arbitration and Conciliation Advisory Service, to set up talks.

Unison is now considering balloting staff in other Council departments on strike action to support Eileen. People living or working locally are asked to write to their councillors.

Tower Hamlets still has four unfilled press officer posts at the time of writing. Staff feel Eileen was victimised because of her involvement, outside her work, in campaigns against council house stock transfer - though no-one has publicly suggested that this affected her ability to do her job. Tower Hamlets communications department was recently taken over by consultancy firm Verve, run by Lorraine Langham, author of the Quick and Dirty Guide to PR, which advises identifying opponents to "take them out of the equation fast".

Cases like Eileen's show that what used to be straightforward council information offices with a public service ethos are in danger of turning into politicized consultant-run PR departments with increasing unaccountability.

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