Over 1,000 health workers in east London have voted to strike in a fight over pay, staffing levels and money owed to workers recently brought back in-house.
The Unite union brought together several fights in a single ballot at the giant Barts NHS trust—and won a stunning 95 percent for strikes on a turnout of 59 percent.
Part of the dispute centres on the extremely low paid porters, cleaners and catering staff that used to work for the outsourcer Serco.
In 2022, an overwhelmingly black and migrant workforce fought a long campaign—including two weeks of strikes—to end their outsourcing to Serco and be brought back in-house. Under massive pressure NHS bosses eventually agreed, but said the workers would have to wait until the Serco contract expired in 2023.
Nevertheless, it was a landmark agreement that inspired many other outsourced workers to fight back. Since then, different groups of Serco workers have been re-incorporated into the NHS at different times.
The most recent joined this May when the new financial year began. And because of this, bosses told them they aren’t entitled to the £1,655 lump sum that all other NHS workers got as part of the recent NHS England pay deal.
There is also anger among transferred staff about their grading. Barts bosses are refusing to take account of workers’ years of service with Serco when deciding where in the incremental pay scale they should be.
This dispute also covers a grievance at the way pay and deductions are managed for all types of staff working bank shifts. Another part of the dispute involves the battle for better pay and conditions for all NHS staff—and is therefore part of a national fight.
Unlike most other health unions, Unite rejected the poor NHS pay deal made this spring and instead decided to fight for better. The union has won strike mandates at several NHS trusts and is planning a two-day strike involving branches in England.
That will include workers at the nearby East London NHS Foundation Trust, and those at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital trust.
Zarina is a medical scientist and union activist at Newham General Hospital—part of Barts. She told Socialist Worker that the ballot had “exceeded expectations”. “Getting 95 percent of members to vote yes to action was a real indication of how strongly staff feel,” she said.
“Our number one issue is the 2022-23 pay award and the bosses’ failure to address the staffing crisis. There’s not enough staff on the wards, which is leading to issues of patient safety.
“People are being expected to work incredibly hard for what is effectively a pay cut. In my job I often feel like I am doing the work of two people. There’s no one to pick up the slack, it’s exhausting, and I often feel overstretched.”
Zarina says that many people were motivated to vote because of local issues too—even if they were not directly affected by them.
“One of the main issues is the treatment of workers, primarily cleaners and porters, who used to be outsourced to Serco. These workers, many of whom have been working at the hospital for many decades, aren’t having their years of service acknowledged by the bosses,” she said.
Barts’ Unite members are set to strike for longer than the two days that other branches are planning because they want to show solidarity with low paid ex-Serco workers.
“At Bart’s, we are planning to strike for a week. We don’t think that a couple of days is enough,” says Zarina. “We need to get everyone out. If all members came out on strike, we could cause real disruption to every section of the hospital.
“It’s not enough to tick a bit of paper. We need to be out on picket lines to attract more members and encourage those wavering,” she added.
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