Hundreds of striking workers and supporters marched between two east London hospitals today, 15 July.
Around 700 cleaners, domestics, cooks and others, employed by Serco at St Bart’s NHS trust hospitals, have been on a week-long strike since Tuesday. They were set to strike again for 14 days from Tuesday of next week.
The Unite union members are fighting for a pay rise – and are furious at how their cost-cutting bosses overwork them.
Domestic assistant and Unite union rep Kaddy told Socialist Worker, “There used to be three workers to serve breakfast. Now there’s just one. Most of us don’t get time to take our tea break or lunch break. And we don’t get to spend any time with our families, because when we get home from work we are so tired we just want to go to bed.
“Serco needs to see that we are all human beings. And we are very important to the hospital.”
The strikers were noisy and exuberant, blowing horns and chanting, “Low pay no way” or, “The workers united will never be defeated”.
Some had dire warnings about what privatisation means for safety. Companies like Serco bid to provide services to the NHS at sometimes below cost prices, then take a big cut for their profits. To make do with what’s left means squeezing workers hard – and cutting corners.
One cleaner told Socialist Worker, “We used to have specialists come in to do a ‘deep clean’. Now we have to do it, but without being given the special chemicals we need. Some people tried to buy them themselves, but that’s against the law.”
Another said, “They give you more work than you can do, and then when you can’t do it just say, ‘Do what you can’. There are toilets not getting cleaned, and in a hospital that means people are going around spreading diseases.”
One major source of resentment is managers brought in from the hotel industry telling experienced hospital cleaners what to do. Another is the use of agency workers to break the strike, which Unite says is being done illegally.
But the strike is winning broad support from a working class fed up of low pay.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell compared the battle at St Bart’s to two other big pay disputes in the capital – at British Airways (BA) and Picturehouse cinemas.
“The managers and directors at Serco are lining their pockets at your expense,” he told cheering workers outside the Royal London hospital. “There’s a word for that: exploitation.”
He added, “What you are doing, with your courage and determination, is sending a message to other workers. You are sending a message that we don’t have to take it any more, that we can fight back.”
One BA striker came in person to show solidarity. They told Socialist Worker, “These workers are fighting a giant corporation, just like us. Their pay is so low some of them have to work second jobs, just like we do. And they’re seeing the profit motive come before safety and quality, just like we are.
“So we have a lot in common – and besides it’s important to defend the NHS. Cutting costs in cleaning is so short term – in the long run it leads to things like MRSA.”
The strike is already having a transformative effect. One worker said, “The way they treat us is very bad, so we don’t have a say. None of us can tell them anything because we are all trying to keep our jobs. But the strike means now everyone knows what’s going on.”
Serco has so far refused to budge, but workers are optimistic they have what it takes to beat the bosses.
Whipps.Cross hospital domestic Guy said, “How long are we supposed to wait for change? Serco has a ten-year contract. That means ten years without a pay rise, ten years of overwork. Of course we have to win!”
Mile End hospital cleaner Malgorzata agreed, “When we stick together we can win everything.”
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