Unison union members at the Royal Bolton Hospital in Greater Manchester struck for 48 hours from Thursday of last week.
They plan another three days of strikes from 23 October.
Strikers work for the wholly-owned subsidiary iFM as cleaners, porters and other support staff.
Bosses are refusing to give many the same wages, terms and conditions as workers who work directly for the NHS.
Striker Amy told Socialist Worker, “They are trying to rip people off left, right and centre.
“Everything is a big struggle after my bills went up in April. I live with my mum and I have literally got 59p left in my bank account.”
Wholly-owned subsidiaries are owned by NHS trusts. But because they are also privately registered companies, they open the door to full-blown privatisation in the future.
The NHS Improvement regulator last month told hospitals to pause plans to set up any new wholly-owned subsidiaries.
This follows a strike against outsourcing by hospital workers in Wigan (see column, right).
But a number of hospitals have already outsourced hundreds of support workers. And bosses are looking for opportunities to regain the initiative.
The anger in Bolton has been fuelled by iFM bosses’ lies that they would match NHS pay increases when taking over the contract last year. Striker Emily said, “You’re told you’re part of the NHS and then this happens. There’s no respect for us.”
Sam added, “They are a private company at the end of the day. And what’s a private company for? Making profit.”
Porter David told Socialist Worker that “there is already a two-tier workforce”.
We’re on £7.83 an hour national minimum wage and those on NHS pay are on £8.92 an hour,” he explained.
Some workers used to work directly for the NHS and were tranferred to iFM on NHS Agenda for Change pay and conditions. Others used to work for private contractor ISS.
David added, “The trust could apply for funding from the Department of Health for the pay rises.
“But they would have to sign up to NHS terms and conditions for everyone. They say their aim is to be a ‘real living wage employer’. And they say, ‘If you are Agenda for Change, then you might as well be in-house’.
“Well, that’s the point, we should be.”
Every trade unionist should build solidarity for the workers’ fight.
Workers’ names have been changed
‘Everyone is out—there’s such a good atmosphere’
More than 200 workers joined picket lines outside the Royal Bolton Hospital on the first day of the walkout on Thursday of last week.
The picket lines showed the power of strikes to unite working class people and give them confidence to take on the bosses.
Many first-time strikers picketed—including people who had signed up to the union to be part of the walkout.
Unison member Amy told Socialist Worker, “This is my first time out on strike and it feels really good.
“Everyone is out supporting one another, there’s such a good atmosphere.”
Striker Edmund added, “I joined a strike with my Dad when I was a kid and I’m out on strike now because of the principle of it.”
More long-standing workers had been part of a previous dispute at Bolton hospital against low pay and outsourcing.
And others had struck while working in older industries around Manchester.
Bosses at iFM offered workers the living wage of £8.75 an hour—below NHS Agenda for Change pay levels. But the campaign and picket lines gave workers the confidence to reject the offer and fight for full parity.
Porter Fred told Socialist Worker, “The last meeting we had was absolutely top. If we look at the mood in the meeting and the mood on the picket lines, I’d say, ‘Yes, we’re up for going out again’.”
Edmund added, “I’m all for it, if they don’t back down we’ve got to do it.”
Struggle can stop fat cats
The fight at Bolton shows what wholly-owned subsidiaries are really about.
Bosses use them to try and undermine workers’ pay and conditions.
Slashing the wage bill makes it more attractive for private companies to come in and take over services down the line.
The Tories and bosses are desperate to prise open the NHS for private profit.
But the collapse of greedy outsourcer Carillion has made the Tories more nervous of immediately bringing in the private sector.
A strike in Wigan earlier this year stopped some 900 workers from being outsourced.
But a deal agreed with bosses and Unison meant changes to workers’ conditions and an agreement that bosses wouldn’t replace staff who left.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said that the trust had “tough financial challenges” due to funding cuts and said the union would work in “partnership” with it.
But the strikes to defend the NHS and workers’ conditions have the potential to win much more.
Union leaders shouldn’t be drawing up compromises with bosses who are intent on hollowing out the health service.
And they should launch a bigger fight to stop outsourcing and privatisation in the NHS.