'We're not militant, but now it's come to the crunch. We've finally had enough, and we're fighting.' That's how medical secretary Susan Mann summed up the mood on an angry and lively picket line outside Sunderland Royal Hospital on Tuesday of this week. She was one of 90 low paid women health workers on the picket line at the start of their three-day strike. All of them had the same message. They are fed up of being treated like low paid dogsbodies. Medical secretaries across the north east of England have been fighting to win a higher grade and better pay.
Medical secretaries in Northumberland won a victory last week. Trust bosses crumbled in the face of a magnificent 88 percent strike vote and conceded their demand for regrading. The strikers in Sunderland are inspired by the successful struggle of medical secretaries in Glasgow.
They fought and won a higher grade by taking all-out action last year. Now Sunderland want their turn. 'We're determined to win. We just don't feel we are being recognised. We are expected to do a responsible job but get just £13,000 a year on the top grade,' said Susan Mann.
'We've been pushed into this action,' says Unison union branch secretary Ann Clay. 'Most of these women have never been on strike before, but they have been offered a pittance. I've never seen such unity before. We've all rallied round and aren't going to let anyone bully us.'
'We'd get paid more stacking shelves,' said striker Michelle Mote. 'Yet we do a responsible medical job. The NHS couldn't run without us.' 'I've worked in the NHS for 30 years,' said Kathleen Bowmaker. 'But on our wages you can barely afford to have a mortgage. We have a poor standard of living. Those of us who are single parents would be better off on the dole.'
'Strikes are something I thought happened in the 1970s,' said another striker. 'We didn't want this, but it's exciting to be doing something.' The strikers received fantastic support on the picket line from other staff and patients. They also have the support of the consultants they work for.
The successful battles of medical secretaries in Glasgow and Northumberland have shown that if workers stand up and fight they can win.