Solidarity is flowing in from trade unionists around the country for the strike by health workers in Dudley in the West Midlands. Trade unionists have countered the mainstream media's news blackout on the strike by raising solidarity in their workplaces. The 600 ancillary workers were set to begin a further three-week strike on Wednesday in their battle against being transferred out of the NHS under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI).
Their five-month fight to stop privatisation is having a significant impact beyond the small West Midlands town. 'We raised £624 in a few days going around buildings collecting money,' said John McLoughlin, chair of the Tower Hamlets UNISON union local government branch.
'It was the biggest single collection we've done for a group of workers in dispute. You've got to go back to the miners' strike in 1984-5 to find anything comparable. And I believe we've only scratched the surface. We produced a leaflet before we went round to lay the groundwork, and more people collected than have taken part in the past. We gave the Dudley strikers a cheque for £1,248 because we agreed that every pound collected for the strike would be matched by the union branch. People see that it is directly about privatisation. Many other workers are threatened by privatisation, and see the effects of it on the railway as well as in health. Dudley should have national significance for our union, as privatisation is the biggest single issue facing everyone.'
Ray Kennedy, the AEEU convenor at the Glacier engineering plant in Glasgow, said, 'It's important to show solidarity with these health workers who are under attack. They are in the frontline as public sector workers. Since Labour got elected we've seen broken promises everywhere. They have carried on with the Tory ideas of PFI. We set up a levy in the factory for other workers in dispute after we had a sit-in at the factory in 1996. UNISON union members in particular supported us, so we moved quickly to help them. The Dudley strikers got a good reception when they came up to the factory. They were really chuffed when we gave them a donation of £1,000.'
The Dudley strike has also encouraged many health workers in other hospitals. 'We are facing the same with PFI in our hospital,' says Doug Morgan, who works in the medical records department of Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. 'So people are giving donations on the basic idea of solidarity, but also because they see a group of people taking on Tony Blair.' Some £250 has been raised at the hospital.
Clare Williams, chair of the Newcastle City Health branch of UNISON, says, 'We've raised probably £500 for the strikers. 'Support has come in particular from ancillary workers who feel vulnerable as the northern region has the highest number of PFI schemes in health in the country.'
'It's easy raising money,' agrees Mick Hawker, an MSF member and operating theatre technician at Sheffield's Royal Hallamshire Hospital. 'You just have to say 600 workers are taking action against PFI and that's enough. People immediately make a connection and put their hands in their pockets. I collected £43 in my section. I did a follow-up including nurses and porters and got £115.'
Marion Doherty, a UNISON steward in housing in Manchester, spoke about how the support for the Dudley strike is growing:
'I've done about five collections around my section, and we had a push at Christmas around other workplaces and got just under £90. People are quite in awe of the Dudley strikers' determination and feel they are doing their bit to help them. It really made a difference when the Dudley strikers came up to speak at our stewards' committee meeting. You got the full impact of the details of their dispute and the way they've been treated by the management. You could have heard a pin drop in the room. People were really impressed by the strikers, and from that more people did collections for the first time.'
The Dudley strikers want to mobilise this wide support during their current three-week strike. They are planning a local demonstration on 27 January, and protests in the constituencies of health ministers Alan Milburn, Gisela Stewart and John Denham to up the pressure on New Labour.
Messages of support and donations to Dudley Group of Hospitals, UNISON Office, Wordsley Hospital, Stourbridge, West Midlands DY8 5QX. Phone/fax 01384 244 350.
'A superb response'
Tom Machell, member of the communications union Connect, believes that 'the Dudley strike is more and more becoming a cause célèbre inside the labour movement.' He described the response to the Dudley strikers who spoke at a recent trades council meeting in Sheffield:
'The reaction was superb. We did a separate mailing telling people the Dudley strikers were coming, and a number of people came specifically to hear them. There were 30 trade unionists at the meeting, including from the RMT, ASLEF and GMB unions. This is double the normal size.'