SOME OF the lowest paid workers in Britain are rebelling. Nursery nurses in Scotland and health workers in North Lincolnshire and east London were set to strike this week for a living wage. They are sick of doing important, caring jobs for pitiful wages that won't pay the bills. They want to be treated with respect, not taken for granted as low paid skivvies.
In Scotland up to 5,000 nursery nurses took part in a series of strikes last week. Many were due to strike again this week. The strikes have so far hit over 400 council-run nurseries. The workers, members of the Unison union, are battling for a £4,000 a year pay rise and a 35-hour week.
Nursery nurses currently start on just £10,000 a year - and that's after they have taken a two-year childcare qualifying course. Even when they reach the top of the pay scale, they still only get £13,800 a year. One of those involved in the action is Liz McCulloch, a nursery nurse in Kilmarnock. She told Socialist Worker, 'Nursery nurses' pay is absolutely scandalous. We are undervalued and underpaid. I get the top rate of £13,800 a year. Under the local authorities' recent job evaluation I could find myself £500 a year worse off. If you're a nursery nurse and a single parent you have to claim benefits. Many do two jobs. A lot of people are shocked at how little we get, they think we get the same as teachers. We are not berating what other professionals get, we are saying give us a piece of the action. People sometimes think we're just away playing with wains. But it's a very responsible job. Often we're looking after very disadvantaged children which adds to the physical and mental strain. Strike action was the last resort, but the response we've had has been fantastic - from nursery nurses, parents and the EIS teachers' union.'
Health workers have also taken up the battle against low pay this week. New Labour wants private multinational firms to run more and more of the NHS. Domestics, porters, catering workers, transport and other ancillary workers who have been contracted out know the cost.
Private firms make profits by slashing staff pay and working conditions. But now three of these firms face a revolt. This week ancillary workers in the North Lincolnshire and Goole NHS trust were resuming the fight against their bosses Carillion (£42.4 million profits last year).
The 300-plus mainly women workers have already taken several days strike action to win £5.03 an hour and equality with NHS staff. Against the advice of their local union officials, they threw out an offer from Carillion of between £4.60 and £4.85 an hour. The workers at three hospitals, in Scunthorpe, Grimsby and Goole, were set to strike for five days.
In east London ancillary workers at Whipps Cross hospital were also set to strike for two days this week against ISS Mediclean (£5 million profits last year).
Some of these workers earn as little as £4.42 an hour. Last week they rejected the firm's new offer of £5 an hour and promises of a move to NHS terms and conditions. They are determined to stick out for £5.53 an hour and for a guaranteed end to the two-tier workforce.
Len Hockey, joint branch secretary of the local Unison branch, says, 'The majority of the workers involved are women and many work long hours, often holding down more than one job. These are workers who have not previously been organised and who are new to trade union activity. But now they are taking up the fight for the NHS.'
Unfortunately Unison officials at nearby Homerton University Hospital suspended a strike, which was also due to start this week, while they consulted on the offer from ISS Mediclean.
Workers at Mile End and St Clements Hospitals are set to join the pay rebellion and to strike next week against their employers, Medirest. Many of the east London workers come from immigrant backgrounds, but have overcome language barriers and pressure from management to fight for their rights.
Everyone should get behind the nursery nurses and health workers, and help make this the beginning of an even bigger rebellion.
Send messages of support and donations:
Scunthorpe: Unison Office, General Hospital, Scunthorpe DN15 5BH. Cheques payable to Scunthorpe health branch hardship fund.
East London: Unison Office, Mile End Hospital, Bancroft Road, London E1 4DG. Cheques payable to the East London Healthworkers Solidarity Fund