DEFIANT HEALTH workers took to the picket lines in north Lincolnshire and in east London last week in an inspiring rebellion against low pay. The cleaners, cooks, porters and other staff are taking on the private firms that New Labour is letting rip in the NHS. HAZEL CROFT spoke to some of the strikers.
'TO SUM it up, we've had enough,' said Joan, a domestic worker in the accident and emergency department at Scunthorpe. She was one of the workers in the three hospitals in the North Lincolnshire and Goole NHS trust who went on strike for five days last week. The workers in Scunthorpe, Grimsby and Goole escalated their action against the huge Carillion firm.
They had thrown out an insulting offer of just £4.75 an hour to be implemented over two years. Defying their local Unison union officials, they voted overwhelmingly to keep up their strike action for £5.02 an hour and equality with NHS staff. As Joan said on the picket line on Friday of last week, 'It's not just the pay, although that's bad enough at £4.30 an hour. It's also always being asked to do extra work and never getting any thanks.'
'One of the worst things this government has done is to bring in private companies into the health service,' said a porter who has worked at the hospital for 11 years. 'These firms don't have a clue when it comes to healthcare. They certainly don't listen to the workers, they listen to the shareholders. It's all about money.' Bill, like many of the porters at the hospital, is a former steelworker. He said, 'I was involved in the steel strike in the early 80s in the days of Maggie Thatcher. There was one thing I learned - picket line solidarity. On our own they can break us, but they can't if we are together and united.'
At a lunchtime rally Unison branch secretary Chris O'Sullivan read out Carillion's new offer, which came after talks the previous day chaired by the ACAS conciliation service.
It was exactly the same as the old £4.75 an hour offer the workers had already thrown out, except this time the firm had removed a promise of sick pay! 'Bollocks!' 'Rubbish!' shouted workers from the floor.
There were cheers for porter and shop steward Joe Koper when he said, 'We have no intention of giving up the fight.'
And cheers also greeted a porter who read out his poem 'The fight goes on', which ended with the lines, 'The more Crapillion messes us about, the more determined we are to stay out.' There was an equally determined mood among strikers at the Princess of Wales Hospital in Grimsby.
As domestic worker and Unison shop steward Pauline Volley said, 'The current pay is just not enough to make ends meet and we're all struggling to live. We are keeping each other going. There's a great feeling of solidarity.'
The workers' spirit of defiance spilled over at a rally held in Grimsby last Saturday. Strikers stamped the floor and chanted 'All out! All out!' during a discussion on where next for the strikers.
'It's work, home, sleep, and back to work again'
THE SAME sense of anger was seen among domestic workers on the picket line at Whipps Cross Hospital in Waltham Forest. They held two days of strike action against the profiteers who employ them, ISS Mediclean. Workers were furious at their treatment, but also exuberant as for the first time many felt they were taking things into their own hands.
On the picket line there was the deafening sound of car horns tooting support, and strikers cheering, singing and chanting. 'We do all the dirty jobs - cleaning toilets, making beds, cleaning under beds, pushing trolleys. We do seven and a half hour shifts for just £4.62 an hour,' explained one worker. Some of us do double shifts. That's 7.30 in the morning until 3pm, a half hour break then another shift. How else can we survive?'
'Work this out,' added another cleaner. '£240 for a fortnight's work. Out of that £140 rent, £60 for the childminder, £40 left for everything else. And they call that living!'
Abra, a domestic worker, said, 'The company look down on you like you are animals. Working for them is breaking my heart. We want dignity and we want respect.'
Porter Bob Edwards told Socialist Worker, 'It's the logic of privatisation. The atmosphere has totally changed at the hospital since the contractors came in. Over the last 15 years I've seen things get worse as they pile more work on you. The NHS is now run like a private business. The NHS fat cats at the top lap it up, while the people at the bottom get nothing.'
'All we want is a fair day's pay,' adds porter Fred Philip. 'Here people work so hard just to survive, they can't see their families. Yet this government talks as if it is for the family. It's like we're not allowed a social life. It's work, home, sleep and back to work again.'
The threat of action forced ISS Mediclean to come up with a new offer of £5 an hour and a move towards NHS pay and conditions. This offer was accepted last week by workers at the Homerton Hospital. But workers at Whipps Cross want to fight on to win their full demands.
The threat of strikes has also forced another health contractor in east London, Medirest, to offer staff more money.
It has offered workers at Mile End and St Clements hospitals in Tower Hamlets £5.17 an hour, with the promise of limited sick pay and extra holiday. Unison has suspended the two day strike set for this week while they consult workers on the offer.
All the health strikers have enjoyed tremendous support from the public. At a lunchtime rally at Whipps Cross last week nurses, radiographers and office staff from the hospital, along with other local workers, lined up to voice their support.
Now that solidarity needs to be widened into a focus of resistance against low pay and privatisation everywhere.
Send messages of support and donations:
- Scunthorpe: c/o J Koper, 44 Cliff Garden, Scunthorpe DN15. Make cheques payable to Scunthorpe Health Branch Hardship Fund.
- East London: Unison Office, Mile End Hospital, Bancroft Road, London E1 4DG. Cheques payable to East London Healthworkers Solidarity Fund.
Agenda for Change
HEALTH WORKERS in Unison, the biggest NHS union, have voted overwhelmingly for the government's Agenda for Change pay package. On a 22 percent turnout, 81.5 percent voted for the package and 18.5 percent against in a postal ballot.
The union's health executive, and a special delegate conference in April, had recommended a yes vote. The Unison leadership argued that the vote was only for the new scheme to be tested in 12 'early implementer' sites. It has promised a new vote on the whole package next year. So far all the NHS unions, except the Society of Radiographers, have voted in favour of the scheme.
New Labour wants to seize on these votes to push through a wider 'modernisation' of which Agenda for Change is only one part. But even they admit that 8 percent of health workers will be worse off under their pay plans.
That means New Labour could find itself in confrontation with health workers in the future as the full impact of the 'modernisation' becomes clear.