One of the main aims of the conference is to learn from successful workers’ struggle. Unison union members at North Devon Hospital have won a massive victory in their fight for sick pay and fair terms.
Mark Harper, chair of North Devon Unison health branch (pc), spoke to Socialist Worker
‘We’ve won. Around 200 people here whose jobs had been outsourced to contractor Sodexo, like cleaners, cooks and porters, will now be on NHS terms and conditions.
They’ll get a pay rise, plus the right to sick pay and a lot of back pay—up to £3,600.
And it’s a step closer to getting their jobs brought back in-house because the bosses won’t be able to pay them less.
It wasn’t an overnight success though. We’ve been campaigning since 2006.
My branch is just an average Unison branch. We kept slogging away but to be honest we were getting nowhere. The first members’ meeting we had, only seven turned up.
But they went away and brought more people to the next one. And they recruited their workmates. We went from 80 members to 210 in less than three months.
Everyone was willing to do whatever was necessary. People rallied round when they realised the contracted-out workers weren’t even getting sick pay.
The campaign was intense and relentless. We launched a rank and file campaign group that lobbied every meeting the board of directors had.
We put up four huge 20-foot banners on the road to the hospital and stuck posters and stickers everywhere. The Trust bosses would pull them down overnight but the next morning they’d be up again.
We’d been waiting for three and a half years to meet with the bosses, but they always refused to sit in the same room as us.
Then in November we balloted for strikes—we were out for 48 hours.
After the strike, management offered the sick pay but not the pay increase or back pay. Then they went back on it. That just made us more determined.
Every time they went back on things people got angrier.
We were ready to go out on strike again—that threat was what did it.
They’d seen how solid our strike was. We had more than half the strikers doing shifts on the picket line—in a blizzard.
It was when a striker turned up at 6.30am, having walked six miles through the snow, that I realised victory was around the corner. Nobody can beat that kind of determination.
We’d told the bosses that we’d escalate to indefinite, all-out strikes if they didn’t meet our demands.
They capitulated, which surprised us. Sometimes if you stand up and put up a challenge you never know how far it’ll take you.
The power of a union is immense when it decides to fight. But it’s not about it being the branch’s fight or the union’s fight—it’s about the members.
All the members became activists, leafleting their streets and putting up posters across North Devon.
It wasn’t what I did that left the bosses reeling. It was that we had dozens of activists involved.
The lesson from our struggle is, fight to win. You can get bogged down in talks but it’s action that works. You need to flex your industrial muscles for people to start listening.’