'THIS IS a historic day for us,' said Unison union steward Joe Kaperas he stood on a picket line outside Scunthorpe General Hospital on Friday of last week. Around 400 porters, domestics and caterers at Scunthorpe, Goole and Grimsby hospitals were on the first of a series of one-day strikes. They are also refusing to work overtime.
They are fighting for £5.02 an hour and for basic rights such as sick pay and pensions. Those facts tell you these are grossly exploited workers, but they don't begin to tell you the spirit of those who have put up with abuse for years and are now fighting back.
They have become part of the growing revolt against private contractors in the NHS. That has already seen strikes in Sunderland, Glasgow and Swansea. 'This is the first time in all the years of being contracted out to private firms that we have gone on strike,' Joe explained.
'There are nine different contracts for pay and terms and conditions in this hospital. Some don't even get sick pay. Others get it after six months. Some don't get pensions, others do. People talk about a two-tier workforce - this is more like a nine-tier workforce. The Sodexho company lost the contract with the hospital last August and this shower took over. The firm is called Carillion - Crapillion we call it. Today, no porters are working and just nine domestics out of 70 are in, and they are supervisors. It's the same with the caterers, although we gave some dispensation so the patients weren't left hungry. The last major strike in this town was the steel strike back in 1982. I was out for 13 weeks then. We are not going to bottle this fight. The turnout today is just fantastic.'
Mary, another picket, told Socialist Worker, 'I have been here for 11 years. It's my first ever time on strike, but enough is enough. They are constantly on at you to do more and more, but you can't live on the money we get paid. We will carry on until things change round here.'
Martin is a health and safety rep for Unison. He said, 'Lots of people here are on low contracted hours. Some are even on zero hours contract so they just call you when they want you. The 'training rate' is just £4.25 an hour and guess what, you don't get any proper training either. This lot are like Sodexho, but even worse. They don't want to listen to us. They say 'the door is always open', but there isn't anyone on the other side.'
A group of women on the picket line symbolised the strikers' militant mood. 'We are being rebels today,' said one. 'I came off the night shift at 5am and got to the picket line for 8am. It's no use grumbling afterwards - you have to do something when you can.'
'Fourteen years is too long to be shat on,' said another striker. 'Carillion have the contract for another seven years, so it's now or never.' 'The supervisors are doing work today,' said another. 'Instead of being sat on their bums in the office they will get a taste of what its really like and they won't like it, I can guarantee that.'
The pickets marched into Scunthorpe accompanied by cars tooting support. Some car drivers wound down their windows and turned their stereos up so the strikers could sing and dance along.
On the way a casualty porter told Socialist Worker, 'It has taken me 13 years to move from £2.75 an hour to £4.25 an hour. Every company that takes over seems to be worse than the last. I have to buy my own uniform. It cost one of our blokes £80 to get kitted out. We thought it would get better under Labour but our local MP, Elliot Morley, has given us no support whatsoever.'
Chris O'Sullivan, the Unison branch secretary at Scunthorpe hospital, told Socialist Worker, 'There's people here with 20 years service and they are fighting for £5.02 an hour! We tried the partnership approach but it just doesn't work. We wanted to discuss getting sick pay for everyone, but Carillion wouldn't even talk about it. They want 'generic' working. It means you never know what you will be doing. You could be feeding patients one moment and chucking out waste the next without shower facilities or proper uniforms. They told people to carry waste buckets with both hand and open doors with their bums. They said that's what bums are made for.'
At the end of the march there were huge cheers and chanting as the 150 or so pickets were joined by two coaches of strikers from Goole and Grimsby hospitals for a rally in the Peacock Theatre.
New leaders emerge from 'sleepy hollow'
THE STRIKERS marched into the theatre still chanting, 'More lolly for pushing the trolley,' and 'More cash for throwing the trash.' Every speaker's name was chanted and was greeted with cheers and stamping feet. Union officials reported donations already made to the strike hardship fund and messages of support from other hospitals battling against private contractors.
Alan Hulmes, a Unison negotiator, read a message of support from Unison general secretary Dave Prentis pledging support for the strikes. Hulmes got huge cheers when he announced that Carillion had that morning asked the union for talks.
Sue Atkinson, a catering steward from Grimsby hospital, told the rally, 'I was so proud when I turned the corner this morning and saw so many on the picket line.
'Do we want our pay claim or are we after NHS terms and conditions too?' she asked. 'Terms and conditions, terms and conditions,' the crowd chanted back. Glenda Smith from Goole hospital was cheered to the rafters when she said, 'They used to call us sleepy hollow, now we lead and others follow.'
Chris O'Sullivan told the rally, 'This morning management phoned union members at their homes to intimidate us. We will not be intimidated. If the hospital trust and New Labour won't stand up for us, we will have to stand up for ourselves.'
Darryl Cumming, who is a catering worker from Scunthorpe hospital, drew cheers and laughter when he said, 'They sit in their offices with their state of the art laptops while our domestics get scalded on old fashioned kettles. Nine out of ten fat cats said their profits preferred Carillion. We want about 1p an hour for every million they made last year. It's not too much to ask is it?' They were due to strike again on Wednesday of this week.
£50 million in profits
CARILLION IS raking in profits while paying its workers a pittance. Pat Wood, the Unison branch secretary at Goole hospital explains, 'Carillion sent out this glossy letter to everyone telling us what their profits are. It's the first time they ever wrote to us.
It was like kicking us in the teeth. It said Carillion made £50,000,000 in pre-tax profits last year. How many people in the company would work for what we work for? I have been around the health service for 30 years. I never believed in private companies making profits from health. It should stop, full stop.'
Health Worker, the rank and file paper, has a special issue dedicated to the campaign against New Labour's Agenda for Change NHS modernisation plans.