HUNDREDS OF health workers packed into a social club in the East End of Glasgow last Friday evening. The celebration had been organised to mark a stunning victory. Over 300 health workers at the city's Glasgow Royal Infirmary took on the multinational firm Sodexho, which runs support services at the hospital, and won.
The workers - porters, domestics, catering and security staff - struck for five days in all, and were ready to go all out. They mounted effective pickets, defying the firm's attempt to organise scabbing. They have achieved significant pay rises, proper sick and holiday pay, and an agreement that they will eventually be brought up to NHS pay and conditions. Just as importantly, they have built the union. They have established a fighting spirit which can lay the basis for future battles.
Socialist Worker spoke to some of the strikers at last week's celebration. Tracie Comrie is a shop steward for the domestics in the hospital. 'I've worked there for three years but only became a steward six months ago. I'd never been on strike or anything before. Our claim was not really for very much. We're still low paid even after we've won. But we did win and it was really exciting. I remember the feeling the first day on strike. It was raining, torrential rain, but we all stood there, together. I did things I've never thought I would. There was a rally and I spoke in the City Halls in front of 350 people. If you'd told me a year ago that I'd do that I'd have said, 'no way,' or needed a bottle of gin before I'd get up there! I was really nerve-racked, and my heart was thumping. But I got up and spoke and everyone was cheering. I felt quite proud afterwards.
'We recruited people to the union because of the fight. We went from 20 members to over 300. I went round just speaking to people, and explained what the claim was and why we had to fight. People had all sorts of worries, about losing money if they went on strike, but when you talked to people you convinced them. It's different going to work now. It sounds strange, but everyone's happier going in there. It's a big multinational, and we beat them. That's what everyone should learn from our fight.'
'People are now more confident'
MARGARET Keenan has worked as a domestic in the hospital for six years and joined the union in the run-up to the dispute. 'I joined the union because I didn't really realise before how badly people were being treated. Things were just going from bad to worse, so we had to do something. We decided to strike because we weren't getting anywhere with talking. For nearly everybody here it was their first time on strike.
'To tell you the truth, it was really exciting. We had good pickets, great meetings and rallies, and we all stuck together. There is a different spirit now. people are much more confident in themselves and in each other.
'It was great how much support we got from people outside the hospital. When you told people what we got paid they couldn't believe it. It was really well organised. We had three shifts on the picket line like when you're at work, and nearly everybody did their bit.
'We were definitely prepared to go all out if that's what it would take. The company knew we were really determined and that's why we won. Maybe we can get Sodexho out now and get back into the NHS, which is where we should be in the first place. They shouldn't be playing for profit with people's lives.'
'When you fight you can organise union'
CAROLYN LECKIE is the secretary of the strikers' Unison union branch. She is also a leading member of the Scottish Socialist Party. 'This fight has just been a brilliant experience. The vast majority of the workers are new to the union and all of the shop stewards are new.
'It shows that you don't organise the union and then fight. When you fight it's then that you can organise people. It's been fantastic how people have been changed by it. People have more confidence, more respect.
'The key in the strike was involving everybody. We had pickets 24 hours a day on all the many entrances. And I mean pickets. In fact sometimes it was like a blockade. We set the agenda, putting in our claim. You don't have to wait and just react to management's agenda.
'We're certainly not complacent. There is still a lot of work to do - and more fights will be needed. But this has been a good victory and given people the confidence and strength to win more.'
'If we can do it so can anyone'
'IT'S a marvellous victory,' said Jim Clark, chair of the workers' Unison union branch.
'People were on just £4.20 an hour, with no proper sick pay and holidays. Now they will all be on more than £5 an hour, and have much better sick pay and holidays, better overtime, and soon be brought back onto full NHS pay and conditions.'
Finlay Kennedy, a shop steward at the hospital, explained, 'We are all low paid workers. Sodexho has been there for about 12 years under different names. They are a low pay company - they treat people like rubbish.
'The feeling has been building up for a while. Then about six to eight months ago we formed a stewards committee and got organised. When we saw scabs being brought in to do our jobs that just made people more angry and determined. There was a feeling growing that we should go on all-out strike. I think the company sensed that and that's part of the reason they backed down. When you get people treated like dirt they are going to kick back at some point. If 300 people in Glasgow can take on and beat a multinational like this then anybody anywhere can do it, and if they do we'll be right there supporting them.'
A lesson for future battles
SODEXHO IS one of the giant firms which the Tories and now New Labour have helped to take over public services. It has contracts in schools, colleges and hospitals all across Britain. It also ran the infamous refugee voucher scheme and runs the Harmondsworth refugee detention centre.
Sodexho is not just a giant in Britain. The multinational bids for contracts anywhere and everywhere in the world. It runs services in countries from Australia to Venezuela. In the US, for example, it runs contracts for school meals. The Glasgow victory shows how ordinary workers can take on and humble this kind of giant firm.
It is also a lesson for all those public sector workers who have been privatised. Of course, people have fought and should fight to stop privatisation. But the Glasgow victory shows that even where privatisation has been pushed through the fight is far from over.
Workers can target firms and particular services, organise and fight - and win. That can then lay the basis for future battles to begin rolling back privatisation and drive the profiteers out of public services. Unions should learn from Glasgow.
They should be drawing up target lists and begin taking the battle to the privateers and the politicians who allow them to operate.