Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/301/13791
Striking Back At Poverty Pay
End Low Wages And Privatisation In The NHS
HOSPITAL WORKERS across east London are due to take 48-hour strike action for decent pay from 28 May.
Len Hockey, UNISON joint branch secretary, Whipps Cross hospital
Hundreds of the very lowest-paid porters, cleaners, clerical staff, transport and stores workers have been driven to this action by their impossibly low wages. They are expected to live on poverty pay, whilst the privatised company directors that employ them pay themselves up to £400,000 per year.
We started this campaign last summer by uniting those workers who work for the private companies in the three hospitals of Whipps Cross in Waltham Forest, Mile End/St Clements in Tower Hamlets and Homerton in Hackney.
It started as a campaign to organise them into the union. They were mainly workers who had been employed by ISS Mediclean and Medirest after the work had been privatised.
People like me who had worked for the NHS before privatisation had a certain amount of protection when we were transferred, retaining the same pay and conditions we had under the NHS.
And it soon became clear that the workers' main demand was for parity with the ex-NHS workers and to fight for a living wage.
We organised meetings across the hospitals and had massive votes for action. Before the campaign, 62 out of the 330 workers in Whipps Cross were in UNISON. We have built this up to over 250 now.
In the ballot 96% voted for discontinuous open-ended strike action. These are mostly women workers, working upwards of seventy hours per week, often with two or three jobs. They have already had to overcome fear and language difficulties to vote overwhelmingly for strike action.
Miserable 7p an hour extra
The employers obviously thought we wouldn't get our members' support and were slow in replying to our claim for parity. Eventually, ISS offered a miserable 7p an hour extra for porters and slightly more for cleaners, with a promise to put both groups on £5 per hour by December 2003.
They have vaguely promised that the two-tier pay scales will eventually end in about 2006 but our members are not going to wait for that.
Peter Coles, the chief executive of the Whipps Cross trust, gets £100,000 per year for keeping our wages low. And the private contractors hope that the trust will give them more money when the contract comes up for renewal in September.
We are ready to fight, including the NHS porters and cleaners. We know if we win for the low-paid ISS workers we will have a united workforce who see the benefit of being in a union and fighting together.
First day of strike action
We plan to have a major rally on the first day of strike action and we are also discussing sending a delegation to UNISON's annual conference in June.
The union put together a claim that compared hospital workers' pay with other groups of workers, such as in retail. And it was clear that these workers deserved more pay and better conditions.
To give an indication of the difference between NHS pay (which itself is very low) and what the 'new' workers were getting, NHS porters get £5.58 per hour, including London weighting and the ISS workers get £4.62 per hour, with no London weighting.
NHS workers after five years get six months full sick pay and six months half pay. ISS workers get nothing for the first three days and a maximum of 12 days per year, irrespective of length of service.
Our campaign for a living wage follows the examples of similar campaigns in Swansea and Glasgow.
The Tower Hamlets workers' ballot was challenged in the courts by their employers and at the moment we are awaiting the outcome of the new ballot.
The NHS trust who award the contract for the work are pretending it is nothing to do with them but they will be answerable to the community at large if we are forced into strike action.
UNISON's east end health branches, in organising these exploited low-paid workers are transforming the east London labour movement. We are also arguing for a fully funded and resourced NHS.
Send messages of support or invite a speaker to your union branch: email email@example.com or ring Len Hockey: 020 8535 6496
In The Socialist 24 May 2003: