Hundreds of the lowest paid hospital workers are taking a stand against a new form of privatisation that threatens the NHS. Their struggle also shows how strikes can bring working class unity and confidence.
Some 600 of them walked out at five hospitals across the north west of England for 48 hours last week—in a strike that saw hundreds join the picket lines.
Almost 1,000 cleaning, portering, security and other support jobs face the threat of being outsourced to WWL Solutions.
It’s one of a growing number of wholly owned subsidiaries used to sell of the NHS by the backdoor in England.
But the backlash against it should act as inspiration to fight to kill off this latest wave of privatisation elsewhere.
The strike began when 15 workers walked out at the Royal Albert Infirmary in Wigan at one minute past midnight last Wednesday.
It marked the beginning of a strike across five hospitals in Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh (WWL) NHS Trust against plans to outsource 900 jobs.
By morning the picket line had swelled to over 150—and stretched across the front of the hospital.
There was a carnival atmosphere as worker after worker said it feels good to fight back.
Molly, a Unison union member, told Socialist Worker, “It’s my first time on strike—it feels good to be out, it feels like we’re fighting for the good cause.”
She added, “No one wants to get privatised.”
Another Unison member described going on strike for the first time as “amazing”.
“I think people are definitely up for carrying on until we stop the privatisation,” Jason told Socialist Worker.
“We’ve had other unions and the public supporting us.”
The Unison and Unite members do some of the physically hardest jobs in the hospital for the poorest pay. “We’re the lowest paid—but we’ve turned out,” one Unison member Geraldine told Socialist Worker. “We can’t afford to go on strike, but we are here.”
Solidarity has poured into the dispute from trade unionists and Labour members locally and across Britain. Unison health and local government branches across Greater Manchester sent messages of support.
And RMT union members on Northern rail, who struck over safety on the second day of the hospital walkout, pledged their solidarity.
“So many people are coming together,” Unison member and first time striker Edward told Socialist Worker. “Management didn’t want it to happen, but we’ve had a lot of support from other staff members.
“We’ve got a lot of solidarity.”
He added, “It shows how much people don’t want the privatisation to go through. We want to stay in the NHS.”
Bosses tried every trick in the book to stop workers going ahead with the walkout.
Unison member Decca told Socialist Worker, “They’ve been bullying, sending us letters before we went on strike saying that it wouldn’t have an effect.
“Management said they feel they’ve already got a good relationship with us—but half of them don’t know who the hell we are.”
She explained that bosses were so spooked because “without us the hospital wouldn’t run”.
“There are porters, caterers, the switch boards, the rapid response,” she said. “The majority are here—I’ve not seen anyone cross the picket line.
“They’ve drafted in managers and staff from offices. That’s worrying because they haven’t got the same training as us.”
Geraldine agreed. “They were saying that they don’t care if we go on strike,” she said. “But those brought in won’t be qualified, they won’t have the training or safety checks.”
Despite hospital bosses’ bullying and intimidatory attitude, workers weren’t put off from striking. Jason summed up the mood on the picket line when he said he was confident that “the managers won’t manage” to cover the work.
“We transfer patients between wards, deliver all of their oxygen tanks, we do the catering and cleaning too—loads of stuff,” he added.
The wholly-owned subsidiaries such as WLL Solutions are a bridgehead to full privatisation.
While the company will remain owned by the hospital, the workers will no longer be on the NHS pay roll. They would be transferred on the same wages and terms and conditions—under a process known as Tupe—but bosses could change them afterwards.
One Unison member told Socialist Worker that workers don’t buy hospital boss Andrew Foster’s promises to guarantee their terms and conditions for 25 years.
“After 12 months management could do anything,” he told Socialist Worker.
“If they do it to us, that’s it for everybody else too.”
Keith Hutson, the Unite union regional organiser, said that the union’s solicitors had confirmed that the 25 year guarantee wouldn’t legally apply. “I’ve been doing this a long time and CEOs come and go,” he told Socialist Worker.
“He’s asking workers to take him at his word as the guarantee wouldn’t be after he left.
“At best he’s deluding himself or at worst lying.”
The wholly-owned subsidiary would also allow bosses to hire new workers on worse terms and conditions, leading to a two-tier workforce.
Being able to slash the wage and terms and conditions bill will make it more attractive for private companies to come in at some time in the future.
So will the fact that the subsidiary company will own the land the hospitals are built on.
The broader aim is to bring in private sector bosses to run the wholly owned subsidiaries in order make the NHS run like a business.
Workers haven’t bought the bosses’ lies and can see the outsourcing plan for what it is.
Decca said, “They’re doing this to make themselves richer—but we’re not backing down.”
Some workers are also angry that former right wing Labour MP Neil Turner is on the board of WWL Solutions Ltd.
He was unopposed for deputy chair of Wigan Labour Party last week.
“We get ‘time and a half’ pay for Sundays but they could try and stop that and take away sick pay,” Unison striker Joseph told Socialist Worker. “Management are behaving like they don’t give a shit.”
Molly said, “The wages and terms and conditions would change. Management are not being upfront—I went on the website and read all the regulations about Tupe.”
“We don’t want zero hour contracts,” added Clarissa. “The NHS has worked for 70 years, why should we change now?”
Workers are determined to remain in the NHS. Many said it was the “best job” they’d had compared to the private sector, but the trust’s latest outsourcing plan has compounded their frustration with management.
“We feel undervalued anyway,” said Clarrisa. And Janine added, “They just walk past me on the corridor, they don’t know who we are.”
But this has fuelled workers’ anger that pushed unions to organise action.
Hutson said, “All of the members who voted are out and even people who didn’t vote have come out and stuck by the mandate.”
He added, “We didn’t need to build the strike. I’ve had a lot of grief from my members for not being on the ball enough about this—I think that’s a good thing.”
The battle lines in the fight against NHS privatisation have been drawn in Wigan.
The dispute has also thrown up questions about how to fight against it and about the role of the Labour Party.
After picketing, workers marched to a lunchtime rally in Wigan’s Believe Square. Lisa Nandy, the local Labour MP, told workers, “I will stand with you on the picket line as long as it takes.
“If privatisation is the answer, then you are asking the wrong question.”
And she read out a message from Labour’s shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth.
“These subcontracting companies represent privatisation by the back door, they are wrong and Labour will oppose them,” it said.
The Labour Party’s national and local support has lifted strikers. But it’s right to fight now—not just wait until a general election in four years in the hope of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government.
Labour’s manifesto did not promise wholesale renationalisation of the health service, just to make the NHS the preferred provider.
Struggles like this could push it into a more radical position—and much more importantly a win in Wigan can begin to roll back the wave of privatisation.
To loud cheers, it was announced that Unison had called a further 48-hour strike from 8 June.
The Unison national leadership should throw its full weight behind the Wigan dispute.
Every trade unionist and campaigner should build solidarity for this crucial fight to make sure the workers can kick back against the bosses’ attacks.
Send messages of solidarity to [email protected]
Make cheques out to WWL Unison Welfare and send to Unison Office, Royal Albert Edward Infirmary, Wigan Lane, Wigan, WN1 2NN