A strike by hundreds of the lowest paid NHS workers in West Yorkshire has become a flashpoint in the fight to stop privatisation.
Bosses are using a new trick to make “savings” and bring in private firms.
They want to transfer porters, cleaners and other support staff to Bradford Healthcare Facilities Management Ltd on 1 October.
This is a “wholly-owned subsidiary” that would have Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust as the sole shareholder.
But the move would be a stepping stone to full-blown privatisation down the line.
Some 300 workers at the Bradford Royal Infirmary and St Luke’s Hospital launched a two-week walkout on Thursday of last week.
It was their second against bosses’ plans to outsource their jobs.
The fight matters for workers’ conditions and patient care. Bosses on top salaries want to make low-paid workers suffer from a race to the bottom.
Steve, a Unison union member and porter, told Socialist Worker, “They’re hell-bent on sticking it to us. They’re doing this to the lowest paid when there are plenty of branches at the top of the tree that could be trimmed.”
Workers would be transferred to the wholly-owned subsidiary on NHS wages, terms and conditions under a process known as Tupe.
Bosses had promised to keep their pay and conditions the same for 25 years.
But after the first strike, workers were called into a meeting where management admitted it couldn’t legally guarantee this.
Striker Mary said bosses are a “bunch of liars”.
She pointed out that bosses would be able to change workers’ terms and conditions 12 months after jobs are outsourced.
“Our holidays, our pension, our sick pay, and our other terms and conditions—they could all change,” Mary told Socialist Worker.
This is precisely what happened at the Royal Bolton Hospital, where support staff already work for the wholly-owned subsidiary iFM.
When their jobs were outsourced, bosses promised that workers would continue to receive NHS pay rates—but then broke their promise.
It took a 48-hour walkout—and the threat of more action—last autumn to force bosses to pay workers what they were rightfully owed.
The real agenda behind wholly-owned subsidiaries is to make hospitals be run even more like private businesses.
One article from the AC Beachcroft law firm, which helps bosses set up wholly-owned subsidiaries, spells this out. “The aim is that it starts to attract private sector experience into the company,” it said.
“Surveyors with specialist skills, for example, wouldn’t necessarily be attracted to an estates role in the NHS.”
And hospital bosses hope to make the NHS more attractive for private firms by slashing the wage bill.
Striking porter Jack told Socialist Worker that the plans would lead to a two-tier workforce.
“Management would weigh down on us as much as possible until many could no longer take it,” he said. “They would then start bringing in new staff on lower wages and worse terms and conditions.”
Bosses have tried to sugar the pill by claiming their plan is needed to maintain a high standard of patient care. Porter Joel explained that they claim the “whole purpose of the plan is to save on VAT”.
“The NHS can’t claim back VAT on things it uses, but a private company could,” he told Socialist Worker. “They say the money would go back into the NHS.”
Workers haven’t fallen for it.
As Jack put it, “The management say it’s to improve patient care. But I don’t think so.
“The 97 percent who voted for strikes don’t think so. The other staff don’t think so—and all the members of the public who are supporting us don’t think so.”
Bosses are motivated by profit, not patients.
At Bradford hospitals, the CQC regulator said that “working more efficiently was a key challenge” to reduce a £7 million deficit. So bosses are looking at how they can turn a profit, alongside pushing through cuts.
David described one scheme where “electricians from the hospital could be used to fix things in schools, and then the hospital could profit”.
“But we’re a hospital, not a DIY centre,” he said.
The idea that bosses care about patients also doesn’t sit well with the fact that they are already “running down” the service.
Porter Alan explained, “Wheelchairs are a huge problem. When you’ve got to move someone, you end up searching the whole building.
“When one wheelchair has broken, it’s not been repaired or replaced.”
And he said the lack of resources can demoralise and divide workers. “You end up having these arguments with other porters saying, ‘No, that’s my wheelchair’,” he said. “It shouldn’t be the case that we have to fight over basic bits of equipment.
“There are posters in the hospital saying, ‘You are one team’. But behind the scenes, they are trying to separate us.”
It is workers, not bosses, who care about the patients. Strikers are driven by a desire to defend the NHS. As domestic Sayeda told Socialist Worker, “We want to stay in the NHS. But this isn’t just for us—it benefits the public.
“What would people do if there was no NHS to look after them? We don’t want that to happen.”
NHS trusts already operate as businesses to a large degree. Resources aren’t shared out on the basis of need across the whole NHS.
Instead individual hospitals have to balance the books in the face of Tory budget cuts.
That means bosses are pushed to try and squeeze more out of workers and weigh up what services they can “afford” to provide.
Bosses’ contempt for workers and the service has added to the anger—and the determination to fight back.
David, a Unison union member and porter, said workers feel they are “run by a management of incompetents and ladder-climbers”.
“Arrogant just sums up their attitude,” he told Socialist Worker. “After the first strike, we had a few comments from managers saying, ‘Disgusting’.
“They don’t like that we’re fighting, that we’re bringing people together, that we’re bringing it to the public’s attention.”
Michael added that workers are fed up with “very untrustworthy managers” bossing them around.
“We’re so top heavy—there are managers, there are deputy managers, there are assistant managers,” he told Socialist Worker. “And they’re all just looking at the money.”
Another porter said management “undervalue” support staff. “They wouldn’t treat surgeons like this,” he said.
The strike has been an inspiring antidote to bosses’ attempts to divide and demoralise workers. A lively picket line last Thursday was a show of working class unity. Black, white, Asian, Muslim and Sikh workers across departments united to defend their common interests.
And 600 joined a march through Bradford town centre on the second day of the walkout on Friday of last week.
Domestic Jenny summed up the mood saying, “It feels good to be out on the picket line with everyone.”
Solidarity has poured in with large donations from other Unison branches across Yorkshire and from London and Scotland. Many first-time strikers have joined the picket lines.
Alan has worked in the NHS for 42 years but had never struck until this dispute. “It was really difficult for me,” he said. “On the one hand I thought, ‘Don’t join in, you’ve never been on strike, you can retire soon.’
“But the people who would be left would have worse terms and conditions than I had, and it’s the patients who will suffer. So I thought, ‘For God’s sake, stand up—don’t let people walk all over you, don’t let people abuse you’.”
Tom, another porter, added, “I wasn’t in the union until all this began. We’ve recruited a lot of people.”
Workers know that, if bosses get away with outsourcing their jobs, their colleagues could be next in the firing line.
Unison branch secretary Ami told Socialist Worker, “The transfer could lead to privatisation. Other services, such as pharmacy or community nursing, could be up next.”
A series of successful strikes at Wigan Hospital last summer forced health bosses to drop plans to outsource workers to wholly-owned subsidiaries. And it forced the NHS Improvement regulator to issue guidance telling bosses not to set up any new ones.
But bosses have since gone back on the offensive.
Birmingham and Solihull NHS Mental Health Trust outsourced over 100 workers to a wholly-owned subsidiary at the start of July.
A solid strike by Unison and Unite union members on the eve of the transfer was too late to stop it. And if Bradford bosses push through their attack, it will embolden bosses elsewhere.
But a victory for strikers would also have a wider impact. As porter Tim said, “If we stop it here, they’ll knock it on the head across West Yorkshire.”
Workers are determined and confident. Ami said that management had “softened since the first strike because of its impact”. “We held a members’ meeting and there was a solid vote for more action,” he said.
The strike can boost the battle to push back the selloff of the health service. Their fight shows the best way to take back control from the bosses.
Every trade unionist should shower the Bradford strikers with solidarity to make sure they win.
What you can do
- Donate to support the strikers. Make a bank transfer to Unity Trust–sort code 608301, account number 49021215. Make cheques payable to Bradford Health Services Branch and send to Unison Office, Field House, Bradford Royal Infirmary, Duckworth Lane, Bradford BD9 6RJ.
You can also make donations via bit.ly/Bradfordstrike
- Send a message of support to strikers via the Unison Bradford Health Branch Facebook page
- Visit the picket line and take union banners to show your support—picketing takes place between 6am and 2pm