LOW PAID workers at the Royal Bolton hospital are the latest group of NHS staff to strike against private NHS contractors. The 150 workers are employed by ISS Mediclean, one of the largest private cleaning firms in Britain. The ISS group raked in £200 million profit last year. Domestics (cleaning staff) get £4.47 an hour, with porters getting £4.61. They are demanding £5 and £5.60 respectively.
Many of them have to work long and unsociable hours to make ends meet. Jean Pollit has spent 25 years working at the hospital. She said, 'It's ridiculous for a Labour government to be in but for people to have to survive on benefits to keep them at work. 'Wouldn't it be more sensible to pay them a living wage? 'I survive through tax credits. But it seems to be just a way of enticing people out to work on a low wage.'
The workers balloted for strike action after ISS refused to negotiate. In the six months it took ISS to respond to the pay claim, Unison membership went from 20 to 150. Andy Gill, Unison regional organiser, told Socialist Worker, 'The staff here were close to breaking point. But once they discovered they weren't alone it gave them an extra boost.
'Learning about other people's experiences fighting for pay and conditions gave them a feeling that they were fighting a just cause.' Mike Phillips, a porter at the Royal Bolton, said, 'ISS told us they didn't pay anyone else more than us so there was no reason to increase our wages. They must have thought we were stupid or at the very best not organised and that we hadn't checked for ourselves around the country. ISS were advertising for staff in South Manchester offering £5 an hour.'
The porters and domestics at the Royal Bolton know about disputes against ISS in Hairmyres, Oxford, Norwich, Swansea, Greenock and Liverpool. 'They fought against their employers and won,' said Mike. Tom Hanley, president of Bolton TUC, who was also on the picket line, said 'Profit is made by cutting wages and working conditions - that's how privatisation operates. And this is a classic case. These workers are more crucial than most. The domestics clean the operating theatres which is obviously crucial. they are asked to do more and more but are not given any more time to complete their work.'
The strike is not just about pay. Domestics who used to get seven and a half hours to clean a ward now only get five and a quarter hours. Two people used to clean a ward but now it's usually just one. Often there aren't enough cloths or mops.
Porters carry around tonnes of equipment, blood, X-ray equipment, computers, beds and cancerous waste material. The food trolleys they transport around the hospital weigh 52 stone and one porter has broken his wrist twice moving one. But despite all this they are dedicated to their jobs and the hospital is renowned for being one of the cleanest in the country.
John Walker, a porter who has been working at the Royal Bolton for 12 years, said, 'The job is lovely. You see different people every day. You have to have a nice personality to talk to the patients. It's just the pay and conditions that get us down.'
After this week's three-day strike, Royal Bolton workers are ready to strike on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of next week.
Nursery nurses are in revolt
'WE NEED to cause a rattle!' Striking nursery nurse Shaheda Patel summed up the spirit of the battle which has pitched her and over 100 of her colleagues against the New Labour council in east London's Tower Hamlets. The strikers planned a mass protest at the town hall on Friday this week, backed by parents, children, and local trade unionists. The nursery nurses, members of the Unison union, have been on all-out indefinite strike for the last two weeks.
The council put the workers through a review. It concluded the nursery nurses should get a pay rise. But the council then tried to claw back some of the rise by changing the workers from being employed all year to term time only. The council also wanted the workers to do extra hours each week. Outraged at this treatment, the nursery nurses voted by 97 percent to walk out on strike indefinitely.
'The support from parents has been phenomenal,' says Satnam Sokhla, who works at John Scurr nursery and is on the nursery nurses' strike committee. 'They value what we do.' Jackie Turner, a parent at Harry Roberts nursery, says, 'The nursery nurses do a fantastic job and are very undervalued. All the parents at our nursery support them. We held a parents' rally in the park opposite our nursery the day the strike started, and again last Friday. This week we and our children will be joining the nursery nurses on the protest at the town hall.'
A strikers' rally last week also saw a delegation of local PCS civil servants' union members attend in solidarity. PCS branch chair Oliur Rahman told the rally, 'Our management also want us to work longer hours for the same pay and with fewer staff. 'The government found £3.5 billion to spend on the war in Iraq. They should spend the money giving decent pay to public service workers.'
AROUND 5,000 nursery nurses struck across Scotland on Tuesday and around 3,000 surged through the streets of Glasgow on a demonstration. It was a brilliant and lively protest against low pay and the latest step in a campaign that began in May.
There were Unison banners from Dundee, Fife, Ayrshire, Highlands and other areas as low paid workers came out to show their strength in the continuing fight for regrading, decent pay and recognition for their work. The atmosphere on the march was fantastic, as young women, waving homemade placards and banners and blowing whistles, encouraged motorists to toot their horns to show their support.
Isobel Sweeney, a nursery nurse from North Ayrshire, told Socialist Worker, 'The nurseries close on Friday for the summer, but that's not the end of our fight. If the employers won't meet our demands, we'll be continuing our work to rule and we'll be back out on the streets in August. We've got the support of the majority of parents and they will back our fight.'
'The thing that annoys everyone the most is the hypocrisy,' she continued. 'They spend millions of pounds on the Scottish parliament, and every time the cost goes up, they find the money for it. Yet they won't even consider our pay claim or the future of Scottish kids.'
Dave Anderson, Unison president, said at the rally, 'Remember, solidarity doesn't stop at Hadrian's Wall. Lots of people from outside Scotland will support us. We should be going on speaking tours across Britain, and encouraging workers from other areas to visit us.'
Nursery nurses start on just £200 a week and even when they reach the top end of the scale they get just £280 a week.
For details of where to send messages of support, and to request speakers, go to www.unison-scotland.org.uk
Connect the battles
WORKERS AT Whipps Cross Hospital in east London struck for three days last week, also against ISS Mediclean. Like workers in Bolton they are sick of struggling to make a living and of 'being treated like animals'.
In north Lincolnshire health workers at three hospitals, in Scunthorpe, Grimsby and Goole, are on an eight-day strike - on alternate days. The current action ends this Saturday. They are employed by Carillion. The company has been trying to beat the strike by shipping in agency workers from around the country.
But despite the pressure the strikers threw out another 'crap offer from Crapillion' last week. These disputes give a sense of bitterness and injustice that low paid workers in both the private and public sector across Britain feel.
They also show the potential for a much bigger assault both on low pay and against the privateers dominating the NHS. The union leaders should be campaigning for this.
Back the strikes
Messages of support, donations, requests for speakers:
Bolton Unison Health Fund, Royal Bolton Hospital, BL4 0JR.
Tower Hamlets Unison, York Hall, Old Ford Road, London E2 9LN. Phone 020 8983 0637.
Scunthorpe c/o J Koper, 44 Cliff Garden, Scunthorpe DN15. Cheques payable to Scunthorpe Health Branch Hardship Fund.
Whipps Cross Unison Office, Whipps Cross Hospital, Leytonstone, London E11 1NR. Cheques payable to Unison ISS Whipps Cross Hardship Fund.