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27 November 2014

Doncaster Care UK: Inspirational struggle for the entire trade union movement

Alistair Tice, Yorkshire Socialist Party secretary

After 90 days of strike action taken since February, Doncaster Care UK Unison members have voted in a ballot by 82 to 31 to accept the company's pay offer. All staff will get a pay rise of 2% from October 2014 and a further 2% a year or CPI, whichever is the highest, in the following two years. In addition, the staff transferred from the NHS last year will receive a 500 bonus.

Let's be clear, this pay deal would not have been given by Care UK, who announced a zero company-wide pay rise for 2014, had it not been for the determination of the strikers. They turned a local dispute against cuts in terms and conditions into a national and even international cause celebre. Their campaign has helped put the issue of NHS privatisation and cuts in social care to the top of the political agenda.

The Doncaster Supported Living Service for adults with learning difficulties was privatised by the council last year, out of the NHS into the hands of private company Care UK. Within weeks of taking over, having won the contract with a bid that was less than the staffing costs, Care UK announced abolition of unsociable hours pay, and massive cuts to holidays and sickness entitlements.
On average, staff faced a 35% cut in their income from this attack on terms and conditions; one striker, Mags, lost her house as a result.

Despite not having taken any strike action previously and with newly elected shop stewards, the Unison members voted by 96% to reject these swingeing cuts and to take industrial action. This forced minor concessions from the company (1 and 2 an hour pay for unsociable hours) but nothing to make up for pay cuts of 250 to 700 a month.

So what was to become the longest running strike in social care began in late February with a week-long strike of around 120, mainly women, workers. The strike was given added poignancy by coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the start of the miners' strike, a few of the strikers were ex-miners as were several strikers' partners.

Tireless campaign

Over the course of the following eight months, through bold strike action and an energetic, dynamic campaign taken all over the country, the Care UK strikers made it onto the front page of the Observer, onto the stage at Hyde Park at the TUC pay demonstration and even into the House of Commons.

They targeted Bridgepoint, the private equity owner of Care UK, protesting outside its London offices several times. Care UK offices were picketed in many towns and cities as well as its HQ in Essex. It was the dragging of Care UK's name through the mud that forced the company to make the pay offer.

More than that though, the strike became an inspiration to trade unionists in Yorkshire and nationally, including the Your Choice Barnet careworkers and St Mungos housing workers. Solidarity donations poured in from trade union branches and workplace collections, enough to top up the union's strike pay to sustain the strike actions. And for the strikers, the dispute became about more than pay, it was to expose the effects of NHS privatisation and cuts in social care.

Labour's inaction

Strikers wanted to force Care UK out of the Doncaster contract. But their determination was not matched by the local Labour council. The Labour mayor (elected in May 2013) always claimed that it was the previous mayor (an English Democrat!) who had awarded the contract to Care UK. But the Labour council did nothing to bring the contract back in-house to the NHS.

In fact not a single Doncaster Labour councillor or MP publically expressed support for the strike, let alone visited the picket line. This includes Labour Party leader Ed Miliband who is MP for Doncaster North - he was lobbied twice at his local surgeries and whilst expressing sympathy in private was not prepared to come out publically in support of the strike.

The strikers, most of whom were traditional Labour supporters, were disgusted by this and most readily backed the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) in the May elections, including two strikers and a striker's partner who stood as TUSC candidates.

Many Care UK workers questioned why their trade union Unison was funding Labour if it wasn't supporting the strikers. And nationally, Unison either wouldn't or couldn't pressure Labour to support them.

Not that Unison didn't want the Care UK workers to win. The regional officials were very supportive and played a positive role. Unison general secretary, Dave Prentis, visited the picket line on the 28th strike day. He told the strikers that they were the "pinnacle" of Unison's fight against the cuts and "You will win". But as one shop steward remarked after a visit to Unison HQ in London: "We need more than tea and biscuits!"

National support

The union paid strike pay and did not block further periods of strike action. The strikers were acclaimed at Unison and the TUC conference. But the union nationally did not or were far too slow to develop a national strategy to beat the company. This comes as a result of years of allowing local strikes against cuts and privatisation in the NHS and local government to remain isolated and lose rather than being built into national action with a chance of winning.

As early as March, and again when Dave Prentis visited the picket line, and again in strike meetings and at Unison HQ, Socialist Party members proposed that the union organise solidarity tours, national days of action and send organisers into areas with Care UK offices and contracts to recruit into Unison and send a signal to the company that it was taking on the national union. Unfortunately this didn't happen at all or began very late in the day.

Consequently, a real opportunity was missed to help the strikers win a big victory and to turn back the tide of cuts and privatisation. Despite the pay deal, most strikers, about 60 were left in the end, do not feel that they have got anything like what they lost or what they deserve. The pay rise is less than a month's worth of what they have lost annually.

However, not one of them would not do it all again. What they have learned, experienced, and yes, achieved, will live with them forever. The way that new shop stewards stepped forward, the strike committee led, strikers spoke at public gatherings (including the NSSN conference) and all stood together, has truly been inspirational and should give all of us confidence in the ability of working class people to struggle to change society.

This battle is over but we are still fighting the war. In the words of strike committee chair Roger Hutt: "NO SURRENDER!"

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 27 November 2014 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.