Workers facing the biggest ever privatisation of the health service have voted by three to one in favour of strike action.
A delegation of workers from NHS Logistics, members of the Unison union, were cheered by delegates at the Trade Union Congress (TUC) conference this week when it was announced that 74 percent had voted in favour of strike action.
The government announced last week it has awarded contracts to provide and distribute hospital supplies in the NHS to the German parcel company DHL and its US partner Novation.
The contracts, due to come into force on 1 October, will mean the transfer of 1,650 jobs and contracts worth £22 billion in purchases over ten years.
The work is currently carried out by NHS Logistics - a not for profit organisation which supplies hospitals, GP surgeries and patients with more than 500,000 products. NHS Logistics workers make deliveries to 10,000 destinations, working from five distribution centres in England.
Paul Harper, branch secretary of the Maidstone depot of NHS Logistics and a member of the Unison health group service executive, told Socialist Worker, “The government have proved impossible to deal with.
“We are an important part of the NHS family. It is not realistic to outsource or privatise us as that will mean a worse service, costing the taxpayer more money, and a worse NHS as a result.
“While DHL have promised we will keep the same pay and conditions for ten years, they are already planning big changes such as opening two new super distribution sites. They are also planning to attack our sick and holiday entitlement by using a bonus scheme which would mean a worsening of our working conditions.”
The workers are right to be worried about transferring to DHL.
The GMB union which represents the majority of workers at the parcel firm described DHL as “an uncaring company with no human compassion” after DHL sacked a worker for “malingering” just days before he died. It then wrote to his widow to demand £700 of “overpaid wages” were returned to them.
Novation, the Texan based company that will be a partner with DHL if the privatisation goes through, is currently under investigation by the US justice department following claims that it has overcharged federal healthcare programmes for goods.
The GMB national officers representing health workers and DHL workers issued a joint statement saying that they will support members who want to take action to defend the NHS.
They said, “The announcement of the plan to privatise NHS Logistics makes explicit the government’s intention to dismantle the NHS bit by bit.”
The government’s plans have been met with anger across the trade unions. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said that this privatisation is driven by “pure dogma and an obsession with market testing”.
New Labour made clear its commitment to introducing free market policies into the health service last week when health secretary Patricia Hewitt appointed the former personnel director of supermarket chain Tesco as the new workforce director general at the department of health.
Speaking in the run up to the TUC conference, Dave Prentis argued, “Unless there are changes in existing policy Labour will not win a fourth term. The NHS is under threat... from the very party that created it.”
The NHS Purchasing and Supply Agency (Pasa) will also be handed over to DHL and Novation under government plans.
Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the PCS civil service workers’ union which represents many of the workers at Pasa said that the privatisation is “ludicrous” and “a blow to hard working staff”.
The strikes by the NHS logistics workers are a chance to halt the tide of privatisation in the health service. Chris Kowalczyk, branch secretary at Normanton depot in West Yorkshire, said, “We are disgusted at what management are doing. There have been issues in the past, but this privatisation is the big one. I think that it will trigger support from across the NHS.
“Some people at my work are asking whether it is too late to take action, now that the contracts have been signed. But we are saying that it is not too late and that we have to fight.”
Because of deliveries in the NHS being organised on a just-in-time basis, the action could have a huge and immediate impact.
Paul Harper pointed out, “Workers in NHS Logistics have enormous power. We could shut the entire NHS down in just three days - most hospitals only carry two to three days’ supplies.”
Logistics workers and union officials were due to meet on Friday to discuss the details of their action. In the meantime, Unison has called for a judicial review into the decision to award the contract to DHL.
The workers are already coming under pressure not to disrupt the health service through their strike action. Karen Reissmann, a member of the Unison health service executive, said that activists should remember that the government is the one that is destroying the NHS.
“The government are making huge cuts,” she told Socialist Worker. “These mean the equivalent of 15,000 going on strike permanently, with the destruction of vital services, yet this is not seen as a problem by New Labour. But when NHS Logistics workers want to strike to defend the health service, they are seen as the problem.
“All health workers should support any strikes - they are fighting for the future of the NHS.”
Rush messages of support and donations to NHS Logistics Unison, St Barnabus Close, Allington, Maidstone, Kent ME16 0LW. Make cheques payable to “Unison - NHS Logistics Dispute”