Dudley strikers say NHS is not for sale
"WE WANT to stay with the National Health Service. It's as simple as that," said a striking catering worker last week. She was one of nearly 560 health workers at Dudley Group of Hospitals in the West Midlands on strike for two days against privatisation.
The workers are angry, and determined that their jobs will not be transferred to Summit Healthcare under a New Labour Private Finance Initiative (PFI) scheme. Now the workers, members of the UNISON union, are set to escalate the action with a four day strike starting on Tuesday.
Last week's two-day strike was a brilliant start to the fight. Porters, domestics, catering staff, laundry workers and other ancillary staff united on picket lines outside three hospitals in the trust-Russells Hall, Corbett and Wordsley. Post Office workers and delivery vans refused to cross the picket lines. There was a continuous and deafening sound of car horns beeping in support for the strike.
Patients-along with doctors, nurses and other medical staff not called out on strike-came to congratulate the strikers. "We know that local people support us, because it's our friends and relatives who need and use these hospitals. That is precisely why we are fighting," said UNISON branch treasurer Hazel Priest.
Hospital trust bosses are trying to use the anti trade union laws to claim the strike is illegal because it is "political". But these manoeuvrings have not quashed workers' determination to fight. On Wednesday of last week hundreds of strikers joined a march around the giant Merry Hill shopping complex.
A catering worker on the march told Socialist Worker, "PFI is all about the bosses making profits from people who are sick and vulnerable. The cost is our jobs and the quality of service. "Look what it means in Dudley. Hospitals axed, 70 fewer beds, 170 job losses. Our whole futures are up for grabs here." A porter said that he used to work at a steel works in Merry Hill which employed 6,000 workers.
He said, "This fight is for my children and grandchildren. This is the start of the full scale privatisation of the health service. Will they have a free and decent health service ten years down the line? Or will the managers and bureaucrats and profiteers have taken over?"
Nobody on the march had a good word to say about New Labour. "I've been a Labour supporter for over 30 years," said a porter. "But I can't stomach this lot. Blair talks like a manager. Everything is about balancing the books, profit and loss. He uses the language of the marketplace-even about the NHS. Hospitals are no place for making profits. Private firms haven't got a clue about patients and medicine."
"New Labour are causing more damage to the health service than Maggie Thatcher, and that's saying something," said a catering worker. "Why the hell didn't they scrap PFI?"
Local Labour councillor Steve Cox addressed the marchers. He said that the Labour group refused to send fraternal greetings because it would "damage management relations".
"Some of us in the Labour Party still believe in old fashioned principles, and support your defence of the NHS against privateers and racketeers," he told marchers.
Strikers cheered when a worker from the Peugeot car plant in Coventry, which was recently out on strike, brought solidarity greetings. "Labour is letting the market rip across the car industry and the same is happening in the health service. But the market for workers means a race to the bottom. Your fight in Dudley is a fight for all of us."
He is right. Around Britain PFI is handing whole chunks of the NHS over to private companies to make a profit. Everyone should get behind the Dudley workers' fight.
DEMO FOR THE DUDLEY STRIKERS
Saturday 19 August, 11am, Russells Hall Hospital, Dudley
Called by Dudley Group of Hospitals UNISON
A national dispute
THE HEALTH workers' UNISON union is backing the Dudley strike. On Wednesday's demo regional UNISON official Fiona Westwood pledged the union's support for the Dudley strike. To cheers she announced, "The press say the strike could jeopardise the whole PFI project." "We are not going to go away. Keep fighting. Keep in the NHS where your jobs belong," she urged strikers.
But UNISON leaders need to turn Dudley into a national dispute and throw the whole weight of the union behind the strike. At a mass meeting last week workers voted by 222 to six to escalate the action to a seven-day strike. But union leaders have only sanctioned a four-day strike.
- Rush messages of support and financial donations to Union Offices, Wordsley Hospital, Stourbridge, West Midlands DY8 5QX. Phone/fax 01384 244 350. Cheques payable to UNISON Dudley Group of Hospitals.
Summit's not tops
PRIVATE consortium Summit Healthcare is at the head of the Dudley PFI scheme. A subsidiary of the Summit group, Summit Laundry Services, took over the laundry department at Basildon and Thurrock NHS trust in Essex. The contract lasted just three months. The hospital trust terminated the contract because "it was not meeting the contract requirements". The trust fined the firm nearly �300,000.
Nick Bradley from UNISON said, "The laundry was not being delivered at the right time. In some cases the 'clean' laundry had blood and faeces on it." Summit Laundry Services is now in liquidation.
THE �80 million PFI "modernisation" at Dudley means a cut of at least 70 beds and the loss of up to 170 jobs. At the nearby Worcester Royal Infirmary a PFI scheme will also mean cuts.
In Kidderminster PFI means axing the A&E and all patient services at Kidderminster Hospital. Russells Hall has one of the biggest A&E departments in Britain and is already under pressure. Yet the PFI scheme means fewer beds and fewer staff.