DEFIANT STRIKES by 300 workers at Glasgow Royal Infirmary have defeated Sodexho, a brutal multinational that operates in 72 countries. The inspiring news came through on Monday that six days of strikes had forced massive concessions from the firm.
Carolyn Leckie is the branch secretary of the strikers' North Glasgow Hospitals Unison union and co-chair of the Scottish Socialist Party. She said, 'Low paid workers have taken on and defeated a giant multinational. This overwhelming victory could open the floodgates of opposition to low pay and exploitation in the NHS.'
The success in Glasgow should spur on resistance to the privatisers throughout the public services. It is a triumph for militant trade unionism, picketing and solidarity - all the traditions that we are told are outdated. Through their own efforts these workers have won more in a few weeks than could ever be achieved though years of 'partnership' approaches.
The strikers also feel like new people - ten feet tall, confident and on the winning side. 'Sodexho treated us like shit - now we have swept them out,' a striking cleaner said on Monday. Before the strike the porters, and domestic, catering and security staff were on £4.20 to £4.67 an hour.
They were entitled to just three to six weeks sick leave depending on their length of service. Now the minimum wage will be £5 an hour backdated to April, and workers will get three months sick pay on the full rate and a further three months on half pay. Overtime will be paid at time and a half. There are improvements in holidays and shift allowances.
Of course many of the workers will still be on low pay. But the rise represents an increase of up to 19 percent.
Crucially, the improvements in conditions mean that by April 2004 the strikers will have won back NHS terms of employment. This is a hammer blow against the way privatisation works - profits from lower pay and worsened conditions.
The campaign against low pay has built the union. When the claim went in 15 months ago there were a few dozen union members. Now there are 342. Sodexho did not give in easily. It bitterly contested the strikes, bringing in scabs from all over Britain.
Teenagers working on catering contracts at army barracks in Aldershot and near York were instructed to scab in Glasgow or be sacked. But strikers picketed all 15 entrances to the hospital, and turned back some of the potential scab workers and most non-essential deliveries. The strike had a big effect at the hospital. Sodexho could see its already tarnished reputation going down the pan.
Managers gave in this week just as strikers were set to launch a new round of strikes, mass pickets, rallies and a boycott of the firm. Because Sodexho is visibly involved in so many areas of work and is always trying to grab new contracts, it is nervous when strikes expose its reliance on low pay.
Strikers had already leafleted Celtic football club fans and asked them to boycott the Celtic catering service which is run by Sodexho. Tommy Sheridan, the Scottish Socialist Party MSP, supported the strike action and visited the picket lines.
He said, 'These people do an essential job. They had a moderate set of demands, and they fully deserved them to be met.' Sodexho has contracts everywhere in British schools, colleges and hospitals. It is infamous for its administration of the refugee voucher scheme. It made £1.5 million from this deal in misery.
The company's British subsidiary, United Kingdom Detention Services, operates the Harmondsworth refugee detention centre. The contract to build and run the centre for eight years is worth £180 million. Sodexho was also until recently the leading investor in the world's largest company running prisons for profit, the Corrections Corporation of America. Yet for all its financial power and its ruthlessness, Sodexho has been beaten by the spirit and courage of Glasgow's strikers.
There are powerful lessons here for everyone who wants to see low pay tackled and the privatisers pushed back. If it can be done at Glasgow Royal Infirmary it can be done elsewhere.