‘WILDCAT Chaos.’ That was the front page headline of the Daily Record, Scotland’s biggest selling newspaper, on Friday of last week. It was responding to, and trying to vilify, the unofficial walkouts by hundreds of workers in Glasgow hospitals and the Glasgow underground. Clerical and administration workers in nine hospitals in North Glasgow NHS Trust, mainly women, walked out on Thursday and Friday. Around half the workers at Gartnavel Hospital had joined the strike by Monday of this week.
The Scottish health minister, NHS management and even leaders of the workers’ Unison union in Scotland all denounced the strikers. But the health workers are rising up against the low pay that millions of people in the health service are facing.
They have patiently waited while their local Unison branch and management negotiated this year over regrading and better pay. Then the management pulled out of the negotiations two weeks ago, and said that workers would have to wait for a national agreement called Agenda for Change to be reached.
This will centralise negotiations in Scotland, making it impossible to pursue a claim against a single NHS trust. It could put off a pay increase until 2004. Workers refused to accept it. They felt they had to move into action straight away.
An angry meeting of clerical and admin workers at Glasgow Royal Infirmary on Thursday afternoon voted to walk out there and then. From there the strike spread to the Stobhill, Royal Maternity and Canniesburn hospitals that day. Workers at the Dental, Western Infirmary, Blawarthill, Glasgow Homeopathic and Lightburn hospitals joined the strike 24 hours later.
The strike was continuing as Socialist Worker went to press. Pickets were outside all of the hospitals at the beginning of this week.
‘We’ve been trying to get regraded since 31 January this year,’ one striker told Socialist Worker.
‘We’re all on £11,000 a year, and management have been giving us loads of extra work. We feel we deserve recognition for the work that we do. We’re fed up with waiting for them to do something about our low pay. Lots of people are frightened because it’s an unofficial strike and management can sack you. But we’re just sick and tired. People can stay on Grade 2 for years. There are some people who’ve worked there for ten to 15 years and are only in the middle of the grade. Management just keep you there. One of the girls who has just started is on £10,500 a year.
‘We are all angry. We’re sick and tired of hearing promises, only to have the carpet pulled out from our feet. They have to give us something – we deserve it. Everyone’s out now. I got a phone call from Glasgow Royal Infirmary to say they’d walked. I just said, ‘I’m going too,’ and everyone followed. We’ve had a big impact on the running of the hospitals.’
‘I’ve been in the job for 36 years and I’m still on £11,000 a year,’ said another striker. We front clinics, take abuse from doctors and patients, work to deadlines. We deserve more than the slave wages we’re getting paid.’
Newspapers such as the Daily Record claim the strike is politically motivated because one of the key figures in the local Unison branch is Carolyn Leckie, a Scottish Socialist Party member. The strike is happening because hundreds of low paid workers have had enough.
‘These are desperate measures by people who feel betrayed,’ says Carolyn Leckie. ‘They are determined to pursue the claim they made against the employer and not let them off the hook.’
There is anger towards management and at national union leaders. Unison leaders in Scotland refused to authorise a ballot for the workers to take legal strike action. They then lined up with the bosses and demanded that the strikers return to work.
Despite the forces ranged against them, workers are adamant that they will keep up their fight for decent pay. ‘We’re going for it,’ says one striker. ‘We have to keep our bottle. We need all the support we can get from workers across Britain.’ Every worker should throw their weight in behind the health workers’ fight.
THE STRIKES in the Glasgow hospitals are part of a series of recent walkouts against low pay. Between August and October last year 300 medical secretaries at North Glasgow Hospitals NHS Trust struck. They forced the bosses to back down by moving to indefinite action. Their victory inspired other health workers.
In March and April of this year medical secretaries in the north east of England struck and won a better deal over pay. Porters, cleaners and other ancillary workers at Glasgow Royal Infirmary struck against their private employer, Sodexho, in August.
Later that month ancillary workers at Inverclyde Royal Hospital in Greencock and Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley took nine days of unofficial strike action against another private company, ISS. Both groups of workers won.
Ancillary workers at hospitals in Swansea struck against private firm ISS Mediclean last month, winning key concessions. That was swiftly followed by a vote for strikes against ISS Mediclean at Hairmyres Hospital in East Kilbride. That was enough to force the giant private contractors to offer improved pay and conditions.
These victories have given confidence to the workers in Glasgow to take unofficial action. Tens of thousands of other health workers feel the same. There is pressure in London to fight back over low paying contractors.
ANOTHER GROUP of workers in Glasgow took unofficial action last week. Some 35 drivers on the underground in the TGWU union walked out on Wednesday. They were frustrated at bosses’ plans to make the drivers train six CCTV operators to take up part time driving posts.
Management sacked all 35 drivers when they turned up for work on Thursday morning. Only seven of the company’s 42 drivers escaped the axe. This closed the subway for three days, affecting tens of thousands of people and increasing congestion on the roads. ‘This is an unbelievable display of arrogant, macho management,’ said Bill Speirs, head of the Scottish TUC.
Bosses claimed that there was ‘no way back’ for the drivers, and that they would be searching for new employees. This would have meant the Glasgow underground not running until January. Negotiations between the union and the management ended with compromise on Friday.
All of the workers got their jobs back. They will train the CCTV operators to drive and will be trained themselves to operate the network’s security system. This is part of a new ‘flexible’ roster. The workers’ TGWU union has halted a ballot that would have seen the drivers take official action over the issue.
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward
We shouldn’t let them hide from the truth