Confidence reigned on the picket lines as hospital workers across Wigan Borough began their second 48-hour walkout on Friday.
The Unison and Unite union members, who work as porters, cleaners and other support staff, are fighting a dangerous new form of privatisation spreading through NHS England.
Unison member Geraldine was on the picket line at the Royal Albert Infirmary, one of the five sites. “It’s been like a carnival atmosphere, with everyone coming together,” she told Socialist Worker
“A lot of people inside the hospital are supporting us too, they keep coming out during their breaks with crisps and biscuits for us.”
Strikers danced as music blared from speakers at one end of the over 100-strong picket line.
She added, “We’re fighting because want to remain in the NHS. If they bring in outsourcing at our hospital, it would be the beginning of the end for other workers and the health service.”
Bosses at Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh (WWL) NHS Trust want to outsource 900 jobs to WWL Solutions Ltd, one of a growing number of “wholly-owned subsidiaries”. While the trust would initially be the only shareholder, it would be a bridge head to full-blown privatisation down the line.
Trust chief executive Andrew Foster promised to guarantee wages and terms and conditions for 25 years after workers were transferred out of the NHS. As Geraldine said, “Andrew Foster is not going to be here in 25 years. If they can lie about guaranteeing them that long they can lie about anything.”
This arrogant attitude from bosses spurred workers to fight on after their first 48-hour walkout last month. Dexter, another Unison member, told Socialist Worker, “It’s a better turnout now that the last time, the vast majority of staff are supportive.
“It’s ironic that every manager in the hospital is against the strike and the working class is for it.”
Management had tried to claim that the hospital ran smoothly during the last walkout. But they appealed for workers not to join this week’s strike. Eleanor, a Unison member, told Socialist Worker, “They were asking for exemptions for porters and cleaners for Friday.
“If we didn’t have an impact why would they be doing that?”
The action is showing that the hospital couldn’t function without these workers.
Franky, a Unite member, added, “Andrew Foster said the hospital was performing better on strike, but when we went in it was looking a bit shabby.
“They only just sorted out the backlog at the stores of cleaning and maintenance supplies the day before we were out this time round.”
Hospital bosses want to push through the outsourcing plan by the end of this month, but workers are determined to fight. Unison and Unite should call more—and longer—walkouts to pile pressure onto the bosses.
Ellie, a Unison member, told Socialist Worker she “loved” the experience of being on strike. “We’ve been forced into going on strike, but now we’re here everyone is coming together,” she told Socialist Worker.
“People would be up for striking again—the momentum has been growing and we're all sticking together.”
Solidarity for pickets gives a boost to strikers
TUC union general secretary Frances O'Grady joined the hospital workers’ picket line at the Royal Albert Infirmary on Friday morning.
She told the strikers, “I’ve come here because I’ve got a very simple message on behalf of nearly six and a half million workers—the whole TUC is backing your dispute.”
The whole of the trade union movement has to throw its weight behind the Wigan dispute and build practical solidarity so bosses cannot force workers back to work.
Franky, a Unite union member, said, “The wages aren’t that good anyway and we’re losing at least £190 a month.
“Yet we’re prepared to do it—we’re looking at the bigger picture.”
Trade unionists should get their branches to donate money and health workers and other workers should do collections in the workplaces.
Wigan trades council and Unison Greater Manchester Mental Health branch brought their banners to the picket line. More trade unionists should bring banners down to the next picket line to keep strikers’ spirits up—and invite strikers to speak in their branch meetings and workplaces.
The fight at Wigan is part of a broader push back against “wholly owned subsidiaries”, with a dispute brewing in Leeds.
Ellie, a Unison union member, told Socialist Worker, “If they get away with it here, they do it elsewhere.”
Unison and Unite should broaden that fight and coordinate action across hospitals.
Strikers see their dispute as part of the fight to defend the NHS from Tory budget cuts and privatisation. They plan to march through Wigan on Saturday, carrying a coffin marked “RIP NHS” to highlight the wider danger, and to join the NHS@70 demonstration on 30 June in London.
The Labour Party nationally and locally has also backed the strike. MP for Wigan Lisa Nandy, MP for Leigh Jo Platt and MP for Makerfield Yvonne Fovargue also joined the picket line. “You are here for us when we need you. It’s time we were here for you when you need us,” said Fovargue.
And Nandy pledged, “I’ve stood with you and I will stand with you until you have won this dispute.”
The Labour Party has said it will reverse “wholly-owned subsidiaries”, but has shied away from promising wholesale renationalisation. The Wigan workers show why it’s right to fight now, not just wait for the next general election.