'The strike at Dudley hospitals is one of the longest running disputes in the history of the NHS. It shows the determination of the workers involved, and the support they are winning is extremely exciting.' That is how journalist and campaigner George Monbiot described the strike by 600 ancillary workers in Dudley in the West Midlands.
Monbiot urged people to support the strike at a meeting of around 280 people in London about his anti-privatisation book Captive State. He said, 'The strikers are getting backing from across the spectrum. People who would never have dreamed of supporting a strike are standing with them. The reason is that growing numbers of people understand the threat that the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) poses. It is privatisation by another name. New Labour's PFI schemes are the most destructive wave of privatisation since the days of Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph in the 1980s. PFI schemes are more expensive than building and renovating hospitals through public spending. The Coventry scheme costs £135 million. The original public sector proposal cost £30 million. The scheme also means fewer beds and fewer staff. Every £200 million spent on PFI schemes means 1,000 fewer nurses and doctors. That is what is at stake at Dudley. The campaign there will not be the only one. It is setting an example which should be repeated.'
The Dudley strike is an inspiration for other groups who face privatisation. Mick Atherton, a retired rail worker and former president of the Midlands RMT union, has raised hundreds of pounds amongst rail workers for the strike.
He explained, 'Rail workers align themselves to the dispute because they have seen the same thing happen to them. They know what privatisation means. I've raised £840 for the Dudley strike by ringing RMT branch secretaries around the country. I've spoken to around 20 branches in Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol and Scotland. Much more money could be raised, particularly if the national unions got behind the dispute, and it's tragic that they have not.'
Defying the bosses
The Dudley strikers began their eightieth day of strike action on Wednesday of last week. Their determined battle has rattled NHS bosses. At the beginning of the current three-week strike some trust managers resorted to intimidation to try and undermine the strike. 'Management is onto us, phoning us up to get us back to work,' said one striker at Russells Hall Hospital. 'Every time we go back into work after a round of strikes someone has been suspended.'
Mark New, the UNISON joint branch secretary, said, 'We believe the Department of Health is giving the green light to managers to try to break the strikers' resolve.'
UNISON has over a million members across the country and has the power to stamp out bullying from management. The UNISON leadership could call a national demonstration in support of the Dudley strikers and make the dispute a national focus for workers everywhere. But UNISON leaders have refused to translate their verbal support into decisive action that would put the NHS trust and the government on the run.
This means it is even more important that trade unionists and campaigners step up support for the Dudley strike. The strikers are taking the fight to New Labour by voting three to one this week to stand a Socialist Alliance candidate in the general election against the local Labour MP Ian Pearson.
Pearson backs the Dudley hospitals privatisation plan. Yet he stood on a platform of saving Wordsley Hospital and fighting privatisation when he first became an MP in 1995. As Hazel Priest, one of the strikers, says, 'We are at a crucial time with the general election coming up. Health workers on strike would be an embarrassment to Labour's campaign. We've got to be an embarrassment to the government to force them to move.'
What you can do
- Take collections round your workplace, college and community for the Dudley strikers. Invite a striker along to speak at the next meeting to raise the profile of the dispute.
- Join the public meeting in support of the Dudley strikers. Tuesday 23 January, 7-9pm, Dudley Town Hall. Delegations are welcome. Bring union and campaign banners.
Build the demonstration on 27 January in Dudley called by the strikers.
- Send all donations and messages of support to UNISON Dudley Group of Hospitals, UNISON Office, Wordsley Hospital, Stourbridge, West Midlands DY8 5QX. Phone/fax 01384 244 350. Make cheques payable to UNISON Dudley Group of Hospitals.