Speech and language therapists don’t fit the media stereotype of trade union shock troops.
These highly skilled health workers are overwhelmingly young and female. They’re extremely committed to the young people, schools and families they help.
Most are in a union, Unite, but until recently few would have imagined themselves striking.
But with NHS bosses in Southwark, south London, cutting a third of their posts, they decided that the only “professional” response was to strike.
Liz, a therapist for five years, joined the picket lines on Thursday of last week.
“We’re striking because we value what we do and we’re passionate about it,” she said.
“We know our work changes lives for the better.
“Health workers don’t take action lightly but we know that people are depending on us to stand up.”
Another striker added, “We are striking to speak up for children who cannot speak themselves.
“The key thing for where we go next is really whether other workers facing attacks join us.”
In Southwark, children with complex disorders like autism already wait months before their first consultation with a therapist.
In the meantime, they often find themselves isolated at school, unable to learn or make friends because they can’t communicate.
Many develop behavioural problems that dog them for the rest of their lives—affecting their families, their education and employment chances, and their future mental health.
Workers won widespread support. Trade unionists from the Unite, NUT and Unison unions joined them on the picket lines along with students from South Bank University.
Southwark Save Our Services and the Right to Work campaign brought their banners.
Some 140 people came to a strike rally, including health workers from across London and local parents.
Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, promised “the full backing of the Unite executive” at the strike rally.
He added, “To strike is a condemnation not of public service workers but of those who are cutting and attacking our services.”
“The cuts put a lot of pressure on families,” says striker Sally-Anne.
“Even when a child finally gets access to our services, often they are only allocated a few visits.
“But it can take a long time for us to develop a relationship with a child, their family and their school—a few visits are often just not enough.”
“If you are working with a child with emotional difficulties it can take weeks to build a bond with them,” added Liz.
“Speech therapy is not like a pill you give to a sick patient that will simply make them better. It’s a process, and it can take a long time.
“Waiting lists will grow if they get away with the cuts.”
Striking therapist Steve said that the strike had transformed people.
“Our decision to take action has really changed the atmosphere at work,” he said.
“Before, people would talk about what is happening to the NHS, shrug their shoulders and ask, ‘What can you do?’
“Now we know what we can do. We mean business—and we are not prepared to see our service go down the drain.”
Additional reporting by Julie Sherry
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