Hundreds of hospital workers across Wigan took to picket lines on Thursday after bosses agreed to push ahead with plans to outsource 900 jobs.
It marked the first day of a five-day strike by the Unison and Unite union members at Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh (WWL) NHS Trust. The trust board had voted through the plans the day before.
Tony is a Unison member at the Royal Albert Edward Infirmary, one of the five hospitals. "People were fuming," he told Socialist Worker. "It's like they had already made the decision.
"At the end of the board meeting people shouted, 'Shame'."
The initial shock has spurred workers to push back bosses' plans. Tony said, "People were worried about carrying on after we heard about the decision last night, but we are now more determined than ever.
"Chief executive Andrew Foster’s arrogance has brought us all together."
John, another Unison member, said everyone was "gutted even though we knew it was coming".
"Everyone is still out here on strike," he told Socialist Worker.
A win in Wigan can begin to push back the Tories’ privatisation drive in the NHS.
Unite members also struck on Wednesday—and some Unison members came out during their breaks to show support. A Unite rep told Socialist Worker, "We had around 100 people out and support from four other Unite branches."
Bosses at WWL NHS Trust want to outsource 900 porters, cleaners and other support staff to WWL Solutions Ltd by 1 August. It is one of a growing army of wholly-owned subsidiaries in the NHS in England.
While the trust would be the sole shareholder—for the immediate future—the plan is a bridgehead to full-blown privatisation. Brenda, a Unison member, told Socialist Worker, "I've been here 33 years and retire next year, so it doesn't affect me.
"But if they can do it to us, who's next? It's another step towards paying for your healthcare.
"They said they'd guarantee our terms and conditions for 25 years, but I've lost all faith in what they say."
Workers transferred to WWL Solutions Ltd would have some limited protections for terms and conditions under Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) legal regulations. But after a few years—or if bosses regraded workers—they would be able to change wages and terms and conditions. And they would immediately be able to hire new starters on worse contracts.
Tony said, "We get time and a half pay for working on the weekend. If they start running it like a business, they would give the weekend shifts to new starters without that extra pay.”
Andrew, another porter, added, "Having those shifts is your bread and butter when you're a porter."
Solidarity has poured in to the strike from other Unison branches, other unions and Labour Party members.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis joined the picket line at the Royal Albert Edward Infirmary on Thursday. "I have come up from London to show my solidarity with our members," he said.
"We have now no alternative but to take major industrial action until we can get the board round the table again, defer the transfer and work something out which will improve services for the communities of Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh."
Workers are determined to fully stop outsourcing. Tony said, "If we get the funding, I think the next thing is an indefinite strike."
The Unison leadership must throw its full weight behind the dispute to make sure workers aren't forced to accept anything less than staying within the NHS with no detriment to jobs, pay and terms and conditions.
Every trade unionist must build solidarity to make sure they win. A win in Wigan can begin to push back the Tories’ privatisation drive in the NHS.