'WE ARE making a stand and we're proud of it. We want to tell the New Labour government loud and clear-we want to stop our jobs being privatised and we want to stop the NHS being privatised.'
Those words came from a striking health worker at the Dudley Group of Hospitals in the West Midlands as she marched through Dudley town centre last Saturday. She is one of 600 health workers, mostly women, who are taking a stand against private companies, trust bosses and the government.
Last week they struck for four days to stop their jobs being sold off to private consortium Summit Healthcare as part of the government's Private Finance Initiative (PFI). But everyone feels the strike is about much more-it is about the future of the NHS.
Helen, a striking clerical worker, says, 'Will the government get away with letting these private consortiums knock down our hospitals, destroying our jobs, having no regard for the patients? 'We want a publicly funded, publicly run NHS with more beds, better care and facilities.'
The strike gained in popularity and momentum as every day last week more and more workers joined the picket lines. Some picket lines had up to 150 workers on them.
Many are striking for the first time in their lives. Joan, a catering worker at Corbetts Hospital, told Socialist Worker, 'I've been working in the NHS for 21 years, and this is the first time I've been out on strike in all that time.
'When people ask me, 'Why are you striking?' I tell them, 'Because I don't want to see the NHS privatised.' 'PFI means we lose 70 beds. They are pulling down two hospitals. If I had wanted to work in the private sector I would have got a job there. But I'm committed to the NHS. I've voted Labour all my life. I thought when the Labour government got in it would put a stop to PFI. Now I feel betrayed and disillusioned. But I'm proud to be fighting now.'
'It has been absolutely brilliant,' reports UNISON shop steward Paul Farmer. 'Car horns are blowing all day-it's deafening at times. Support has also been rolling in. I've been down to London to raise support among workers in councils, hospitals, fire stations and elsewhere. Other delegations have been to Sheffield, where they raised £1,500, and to Manchester.'
The strike has also struck a chord among people in Dudley who are furious that private companies have been given the go-ahead to wreck local health services. Some shoppers clapped and gave thumbs-up signs as they watched the demo pass through Dudley market on Saturday.
Annie, a pensioner who has been a patient at Corbetts Hospital, told Socialist Worker, 'The workers are right to strike. I've spent most of my life paying tax to fund the health service and now Labour want the money men to take it over. I saw the creation of the NHS under the Labour government. It makes me want to weep to see another Labour government tearing it down and selling it off.'
Steve, a postal worker, also supports the strike. 'These workers are fighting for all working class people who want decent healthcare,' he said. 'I would urge everyone to support them morally, financially and in any way they can.'
Potential is there
LAST WEEK'S four-day strike and the two-day strike earlier this month are a brilliant start to the Dudley workers' battle for their jobs and the NHS. Over £10,000 has been collected in solidarity. There has been support from workers and trade unionists around Britain, from Plymouth to Newcastle.
At a mass meeting last week workers voted overwhelmingly to escalate the strike to seven days. Now the workers' UNISON union, which backs the strike, needs to build on this magnificent solidarity.
On Saturday's demonstration Paul Vaughan, UNISON's West Midlands head of health, said, 'The strike can be won, and regional and national UNISON will support you, whatever it takes.'
Those words need to be turned into action. There is huge potential support for the hospital workers. Only four months ago nearly 100,000 took to the streets to save the nearby Longbridge car factory.
All of those who marched feel equally passionate about saving the hospitals. The spirit of the Longbridge demonstration could be mobilised behind the Dudley fight. That fighting spirit was also seen in the campaign against the running down of nearby Kidderminster Hospital, also as a result of a PFI scheme.
That campaign has seen tens of thousands mobilise on the streets. A similar campaign could be built in Dudley. UNISON leaders also need to mobilise the strength of the union's 1.3 million members behind the Dudley strike.
They need to make the strike a national cause which will inspire workers up and down Britain. UNISON officials have said they will give the go-ahead to the seven-day strike. Now they need to throw all the union's resources into building support for that strike, and to be prepared to call indefinite action if necessary.
'Run for profit'
A TOP doctor at the Dudley Group of Hospitals has spoken out in favour of the strike. Consultant Adrian Hamlyn spoke at a public meeting in support of the strike in Stourbridge on Tuesday of last week.
'It says a lot that the trust should pick a section of the workforce they believe to be the least articulate, most underprivileged and certainly worst paid, and treat them as a disposable item. I cannot see the new development will be much service to the community in which we live. It will be run for profit.'
THERE IS huge bitterness among strikers at the four New Labour MPs in the Dudley area. All now support PFI and refuse to support the Dudley strikers. Ian Pearson is Labour MP for Dudley South.
One porter says, 'I remember clearly Ian Pearson canvassing me in 1997. He said he was against privatisation and what he said was the Tories' 'creeping privatisation' of the health service. But now he is in a position of power, a position to speak out and to stop these racketeers destroying the health service, he is silent.'
Some local Labour Party members are appalled at the way the government is pushing ahead so enthusiastically with PFI. Labour Party member John Lloyd from the Stourbridge constituency spoke to the demonstrators on Saturday: 'I bring greetings from Stourbridge Labour Party which supports you wholeheartedly in your fight to save your jobs.'
Private Finance Initiative proves to be a health hazard
NEW LABOUR, which used to oppose PFI under the Tories, is now enthusiastically ramming through PFI schemes around the country. New figures show that the 'first wave' of 15 PFI hospital schemes resulted in the loss of some 600 beds.
Now even the government's own 'architecture tsar', Sir Stuart Lipton, has spoken out against the PFI hospitals. Last week he said that the first 15 such hospitals are 'poor, not uplifting and won't do anything for society'.
He also says the hospitals could put lives at risk. In one PFI hospital in Swindon the recovery room has been put 80 metres from the operating theatre. This is far too far and could mean the difference between life and death after a major operation.
Sir Stuart Lipton says, 'Some major new hospitals are going to be new urban disasters.'
Send messages of support and donations to Union Offices, Wordsley Hospital, Stourbridge, West Midlands DY8 5QX. Phone/fax 01384 244 350. Cheques payable to UNISON Dudley Group of Hospitals.