OVER 70 pickets were out on Monday morning at Royal Bolton Hospital as workers began their latest three-day strike over pay. The 150 workers are fighting for £5.60 an hour minimum for porters and £5 for domestics. They are employed by ISS Mediclean, one of the biggest NHS contractors.
Unison member Mike Phillips told Socialist Worker, 'This is like the lottery - we're in it to win it. We are not prepared to go on being underpaid and undervalued. Because workers like this are so poorly paid the financial costs of striking hit them hard. I'd urge everyone to give support and take collections for us.'
Mass meetings at Bolton on Thursday of last week strongly backed continuing the strike action. There were 98 people at the meeting for day staff and everyone supported more action. There were 40 present at the meeting for evening staff and all but one person were determined to continue.
The strikers were cheered to hear last week that agency staff, used by management on strike days, have been withdrawn following a union campaign.
It is now important to broaden the support for Bolton. The strikers have started collections in the town centre, an excellent way to publicise their case and raise funds. Visits to workplaces would also be a good way to spread the message of resistance.
Further strikes are planned for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday next week. Bolton strikers should take heart from the outcome of strikes at Whipps Cross Hospital in east London, another ISS Mediclean workforce. The porters and domestics rejected a deal from their bosses and stuck out for better than £5 an hour.
Last week, after tense negotiations and on the eve of a further round of strikes, management made a new offer. This is for a basic £5 an hour plus a lump sum which brings the effective rate to £5.17 an hour.
Unison branch secretary Len Hockey told Socialist Worker, 'We think this is a real achievement and vindicates our decision to strike. It has been a tough few weeks but we've come out on top.' Meanwhile strikes have been suspended at Scunthorpe, Grimsby and Goole while workers vote on a new offer from their Carillion bosses. It proposes a basic pay of £4.75 an hour plus an attendance bonus which could mean 10p an hour more.
The present pay can be as low as £4.25 an hour. Incredibly Carillion bosses believe that their 'generosity' in offering this increase has to be matched by more concessions from workers. Andy Mosley, facilities general manager for Carillion, pompously declares that as part of the deal staff must knuckle under to 'flexible working arrangements and improved efficiency'.
The Unison union is recommending the deal and given such direction there is strong pressure to go along with it. Nevertheless it is still well below what these workers should get and less than the £5 an hour which has emerged as a benchmark in most of the recent NHS strikes.
Unison member Martyn Roach told Socialist Worker, 'This dispute has seen the first strikes by these workers for 25 years. The support we have received has been fantastic. Our strikes, and those by other hospital workers in a similar position, have focused attention on the scandalously low levels of pay for contracted staff. Not everyone would want to work as a mortuary attendant at 2am, certainly not for the sort of money we get.'
A revolt over low pay has rippled through the NHS. Unison should be building on that and starting a nationally coordinated campaign.
Send messages of support, requests for speakers and donations to Bolton Unison Health Fund, Royal Bolton Hospital, Bolton BL4 0JR. Cheques payable to Unison Strike Fund RBH.