NHS workers are on the sharp end of New Labour’s attacks on the public sector. This autumn they will vote on whether to accept the sweeping changes to pay and contracts in the government’s Agenda for Change deal.
At Homerton Hospital in Hackney, east London, workers have responded to the attacks they have faced by getting organised.
The new union activists are young, active and mainly black. A group of Unison union members met up last week to discuss what’s going on in their workplace.
Natasha, medical records worker and shop steward: Since I got involved with the union the main issue has been Agenda for Change, but there have been other issues such as racial discrimination.
A circular was sent round looking at the ethnic make-up of employees—it showed a bias against black people.
The union can put forward suggestions to deal with the situation—it doesn’t sound a lot, but it’s important.
Tony, shop steward: It’s not just black people who face discrimination in the workplace, it’s other people like East Europeans as well. The union gives me a voice to speak up.
I represent ISS Mediclean workers in the post room. The company is not fair. People talk about a two-tier workforce in the NHS, but they have a three-tier workforce.
There are three people working with me at the moment.
They are all on different pay grades but we’re all doing the same job. That’s one of the reasons I got involved in Unison.
When the contractors came into the hospital Unison fought so that the people working here already could keep their old contract.
Just after that another group came in on a different rate.
Then the people who came in last were put on the minimum wage.
There are so many private contractors here already.
There is a private newspaper shop and coffee shop. Synergy came in and took over cleaning instruments.
Now they are talking about putting the women who clean the linen out of work and bringing in contractors.
I don’t think Labour have done enough to get rid of the things that the Tories brought in.
The money they say they are pumping into hospitals is not getting through—Labour has let us down. I’d like to know what they’re spending it on.
All: The war!
Tony: The war is one of the biggest issues right now, and it is also an issue of racism. They are using the war to detain people because they are Muslims. Where does it stop?
Dave, lead Agenda for Change negotiator: Everyone talks about a two-tier system between, say, NHS staff and ISS Mediclean’s staff. Of course I’m in favour of them getting a decent wage, but even within the NHS staff there is a two-tier system.
Admin and clerical staff get very low wages. That will get worse if Agenda for Change comes in.
Natasha: People are starting to get the information about Agenda for Change, but whether they know all the implications is a different matter.
Sharon, newly elected shop steward in outpatients: I think lots of people are under the impression that they are all going to get a pay rise.
Natasha: There’s misinformation coming out about the deal, and also people are being told that Agenda for Change is going through and you have no say in it.
Sharon: They are taking admin and clerical work away and giving it to clinical workers. Is that going to mean that further down the line they need less admin and clerical staff? That’s a big worry of mine.
Dave: If all the union branches are as well run as ours there will be protests over Agenda for Change, but that’s not the case at the moment. So it will vary from hospital to hospital.
Union activists here go out and actively recruit. The word democracy is bandied about, but our branch is run democratically.
That means that everyone participates, so it makes the branch stronger. No one’s views are ever rubbished. We have a layer of stewards under the branch secretaries who also filter this democracy down. Some of them have been doing the job for a while, but there are new stewards like me who have been learning from them.
Andrew, medical records worker: If you have a problem you can go straight to a union steward and they will get you the information you need. Sometimes there is a minor problem, but people are scared to go to their managers, so you can go to the union.
Tony: We need more stewards, which is hard when people work for ISS Mediclean. They are making people scared. Yesterday I went out to try to get domestics to be stewards, and not one of them wanted to be one.
Diana, joint branch secretary: Everyone is scared at first. You think you might not be up to it, or the managers will go for you.
It’s important for us to support new stewards. They can gain confidence fighting over small things—the main thing is for them to get stuck in and see they can make a difference.
One of the things that changed the branch was the strike we nearly had with ISS Mediclean. Before that we weren’t a well organised branch, and we only recruited in dribs and drabs.
Because we had to get organised, the union membership shot up. Among those working for ISS Mediclean it went from about 50 to 95 percent.
People are prepared to join a union if you show you’re prepared to fight.