Health workers in the West Midlands have vowed to keep fighting after bosses voted to press ahead with plans to privatise their jobs on Wednesday.
The decision came on the final day of a three-day walkout by Unison and Unite union members at Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust.
The trust plans to outsource around 150 cleaners, domestics and other support staff to a “wholly-owned subsidiary” on Monday of next week.
Around 100 strikers protested outside a trust board meeting at the Uffculme Health Centre in Moseley, Birmingham, on Wednesday morning.
Ian, a Unite member and electrician, said workers are determined to remain working for the NHS. He told Socialist Worker, “People are being handed over to a private company against their will.
“If we go over to SSL on 1 July, we’ll be balloted again and all of us will be out again causing more disruption. This is not going to go away.”
He added, “I wanted to come out on strike for a week—we should have been doing this six months ago.”
Andy Chaffer, Unison branch secretary, said the unions want more strikes against the new employer SLL. He told Socialist Worker, “Unison and Unite have been looking at all legal aspects for going into strikes.
“We’ll be looking at everything possible.”
Wholly-owned subsidiaries are privately-registered companies whose sole shareholder is the NHS trust. They allow bosses to lay the ground for full-blown privatisation in the longer term by undermining workers’ wages, terms and conditions.
The three-day walkout has shown the strength of feeling among workers—and that there is widespread support for further action.
Jack, a Unite member, was one of the many first-time strikers outside the Uffculme Health Centre. “I only started working here three days ago,” he told Socialist Worker. “I was in work last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday—then on strike on Monday.”
Workers received solidarity from the FBU firefighters’ union, health campaigners, Labour Party members and other socialists. And a steady stream of cars and bikes tooted their horns and rang their bells in support.
Mary, a Unite member and domestic, told Socialist Worker it was a “bit scary being on strike for the first time”. But she added, “It feels good because we are all sticking together. This isn’t just about our jobs.
“It’s about the future of the NHS.”
A series of strikes in Wigan last summer forced bosses to back off from outsourcing plans—after the board had voted to press ahead.
The victory also saw other trusts drop similar plans—and the NHS Improvement regulator issue guidance instructing trusts to pause setting up new wholly-owned subsidiaries.
The bosses’ vote in Birmingham shows that they want to get back on the front foot and drive through privatisation.
More strikes have the power to stop them.
Warnings and opportunities
One of many downsides of outsourcing is that it tries to put limits on workers’ organisation.
That is why it’s a shame that the Unison and Unite unions waited until the eve of the privatisation to call a strike.
For an official strike there needs to be a grievance with the new employer.
The workers should fight to be brought in house. And workers facing outsourcing need to take on the employers early.
Other outsourced health workers have scored important wins over pay in the last year.
This includes support workers at wholly-owned subsidiaries, showing there are possibilities to fight after a transfer has taken place.
Bosses at iFM at the Royal Bolton Infirmary were refusing to pay workers NHS Agenda for Change pay and terms and conditions despite previous promises.
Unison members held a two-day strike—and had already announced a further two-day strike before their first one.
The trust agreed to pay the same pay as those directly employed by the NHS. And since then workers at Liverpool Women’s Hospital, the Liverpool and Broadgreen hospitals and Doncaster and Bassetlaw hospitals have all won pay parity through strikes or the threat of strikes.
Say no to market tests
Health bosses are trying another method to outsource jobs—“market testing”.
This is where bosses look at how a publicly provided service stacks up against the private sector. The aim is to make the service more “cost effective”, and often the result is privatisation.
Most recently hospital bosses in Bedford have announced plans to market test their cleaning and domestic services.
Even if bosses choose not to privatise the service, they can still use the test to discipline workers by using the results as a benchmark to measure performance.
And the threat of privatisation hangs over people’s heads. The best response to a market test is to fight.
Bosses at Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow, Essex, tried market testing their cleaning services, saying they would decide whether to outsource jobs in August.
But Unison union members voted by 99 percent to strike—and called six strike days.
Bosses backed off before the first planned walkout in June. Walkouts can win
Strikes have pushed back other attempts to transfer jobs to “wholly-owned subsidiaries”.
Bosses at Writhington, Wigan and Leigh (WWL) NHS Trust planned to outsource around 900 jobs in the estates and facilities department to WWL Solutions last summer.
After bosses announced the plans, workers pushed the local Unison and Unite union branches to organise walkouts. Workers held two 48-hour strikes and a five day strike across May and June.
As they prepared another seven-day strike in July, bosses sent out letters saying they would be transferred to WWL on 1 August.
But workers didn’t buckle—and some rank and file activists began arguing for an indefinite strike to stop the plans.
Their action put pressure on the Labour council to stump up money and broker a deal, which meant bosses backed down.