NHS BOSSES in the north east of England have been forced to back down one by one in the face of strikes, and the threat of strikes, by low paid women workers. Medical secretaries have shown it is possible to take on trust managements and win. At Sunderland City Hospitals Trust, workers voted to end their indefinite strike on Wednesday of last week.
A new offer gives all the medical secretaries a pay increase by moving them up the pay scale. Workers at South Tyneside Trust also called off their series of strikes last week after a similar offer. Medical secretaries in the South Durham and Northumbria trusts have also won pay increases after merely threatening to take strike action.
And at the end of last week bosses at Newcastle General Hospital offered its medical secretaries a similar deal after they had voted to join the wave of strikes. This shows how a dispute of low paid workers, who have no history of taking strike action, can gather momentum.
The secretaries in the north east of England were themselves inspired by the victory of Glasgow medical secretaries last year. They won improved pay after taking indefinite action.
In every hospital that was part of the latest action the women workers were proud to be fighting and showed huge determination. They have provided an example for the low paid everywhere that workers don't have to put up with crappy wages and being taken for granted.
However, there are problems with some of the deals. This is most clear in Sunderland, where trust bosses took a hard attitude. It was a victory to force them to offer improvements. But bosses have staged the introduction of the increased pay. Some workers must wait two years to get the full increase.
After the mass meeting which accepted the deal last week there was a sense of resignation rather than jubilation from some of the secretaries. Some felt they had no alternative to ending the strike, because they believed they would lose support from hospital doctors and the public if they stuck out. Part of this feeling was the result of weaknesses within the strike itself. The workers' Unison union regional officials did not match the strikers' spirit of resistance by delivering the level of solidarity needed to keep the all-out strike going.
This meant that the women saw consultants in the hospital, rather than other workers and trade unionists in the area, as their main backers. Nevertheless the medical secretaries have shown that standing up and fighting wins results.