Medical secretaries in Glasgow have won a brilliant victory. The 300 low paid hospital workers, all members of the UNISON union, won because they were prepared to stand up and all take indefinite strike action. The all-women workforce refused to be cowed by a management that issued threats and treated them as second class.
And they refused to obey their own UNISON leaders, who did not want the workers to escalate the action. The workers have been fighting for over a year to have their jobs regraded and win a decent pay rise. In August, after an overwhelming vote for action, they started a series of one-day, three-day, week-long and selective strikes.
The strikers built up tremendous support among other hospital workers, patients and the public. At this stage trust bosses refused to negotiate. But when the workers decided to raise the stakes and go all out, trust management did a complete U-turn.
After just two days of the indefinite action last week, hospital bosses caved in and met nearly all the workers’ demands. ‘It is a victory-a boost-to everyone on low pay,’ says striker Mhairi Whitton. ‘The trust had treated us like we were not important. They said they we weren’t going to be missed from the hospital. They said they would never shift. ‘Then they started describing us as important skilled workers, and they agreed to regrade us, having said it was not on the cards.’
The offer from the trust bosses means that all the medical secretaries will now be able to move onto a higher grade. The offer is a much better deal than a ‘national framework’ agreed by bosses and UNISON leaders earlier this year. The new deal means the majority of the workers will receive a pay rise of over £1,000 a year.
The workers will also be able to qualify for a proficiency allowance of between £300 and £600 a year, which had been abolished under the ‘national framework’. The workers will receive a total of 13 months arrears of pay, with most workers getting £1,200 in back pay. The trust has reinstated all the annual leave that was deducted because of the industrial action. And it promised that all the extra pay would be delivered before Christmas.
A packed and jubilant mass strikers’ meeting on Thursday of last week unanimously agreed to suspend strikes. Workers cheered and celebrated what they have won. But the workers were also determined to make sure their trust bosses implement every part of the deal.
As Mhairi Whitton said, ‘This is a massive win for us. But we still have to dot the i’s and cross the t’s to make sure management don’t renege. I hope this gives strength for others to fight, and if they do we will support them.’
UNISON steward and medical secretary Frances Lyall said, ‘This is recognition at last of the justice of our claim. NHS workers, including porters and cleaners, are undervalued. We have secured recognition for the job we do. But, like the majority of employees in the NHS, we remain underpaid. There is still a lot to be done.’
The medical secretaries’ strike was official, but union leaders did not want the workers to take all-out action. In contrast the medical secretaries received brilliant solidarity and encouragement from workers and trade unionists around Britain.
Striker Margaret Woods said, ‘There were emails of support from other hospital workers and other trade unionists every day. It was an amazing feeling. It made you realise it was right to strike. There was support from the doctors, who realise what our job entails and how important we are. I’ve put in 30 years service, and yet management make you feel like you are worthless. We hope the success of our fight will open up the floodgates for other low paid sectors in the NHS. The government and management can’t afford to treat vital workers so badly. As a group of women not known for fighting, we have shown what can be achieved.’
Many of the medical secretaries spoke at meetings for the first time in their lives, and visited workplaces and union meetings. Cathy Craig addressed a 4,500-strong anti-war rally in Glasgow’s George Square. She says it is vital that the workers keep up the links they have built with other campaigners and trade unionists.
Delegations of strikers visited Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, London, Aberdeen, Dundee and elsewhere. Fellow medical secretary Ann Baxter describes the importance of the delegation work in boosting morale and widening support:
‘I went down to London, to council and other workplaces in Hackney and Islington. There was a fantastic response. Some £2,700 was pledged. We were a sign of hope for people that you can stand up and fight.’
The rank and file backing for the medical secretaries should encourage any other group of workers who are preparing to strike.
‘I’M GOING back to work a different person. I feel stronger and more confident,’ says striker Mhairi Whitton. ‘Management will face a different group of workers. They will get a shock. We have learnt so much, and we don’t intend to be pushed around any more.’
Her feelings are echoed by many of the strikers. Another striker, Marion Scott, says, ‘The management had the attitude that we were just brainless women- that we didn’t mind working for so little. But a lot of us are women on their own or single mothers trying to survive. We do an important skilled job. I went to Perth to speak to railway workers. They were shocked at how little money we got-just £12,000 to £13,000 a year-and how little we were fighting for, just £1,000 a year extra. We were hardly asking for the earth. All of us had the attitude that we must keep on fighting, because everyone was watching us.’
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