Striking Barts health workers an example of ‘fighting trade unionism’
Paula Mitchell, London Socialist Party
“We want a famous victory for the east London working class!” So declared Unite union branch secretary and Socialist Party member Len Hockey to the magnificent rally of striking cleaners, porters and other ancillary staff in Barts Health NHS Trust on the first day of their strike against vicious private employer Serco on 4 July.
Another seven days of strike started on 11 July, and if there is no resolution, a 14-day strike will begin on 25 July. Workers will lead a demonstration through the East End on 15 July.
Royal London Hospital rep Melissa said: “Together we fight. For a pay rise. Against stressful workloads. Fighting together we will win.”
The big, bright picket lines have been an inspiration to all who have seen them. Workers proudly waving their union flags have marched, danced and sung.
These are mainly black, Asian and migrant workers, many of them women, all of them struggling on poverty pay and under increased workloads, and now determinedly fighting to break their exploitative conditions.
Support from the trade union movement will be very important if Serco digs in. It is important that Unite general secretary Len McCluskey sent a message to the strike, and that assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail addressed the strikers on the first day.
The Unite branch and organisers, the Socialist Party, Waltham Forest Trade Union Council and the National Shop Stewards Network are working hard to spread support for the strike.
Barts Health NHS Trust, which gave Serco the contract, must feel the pressure. If Serco doesn’t pay up, remove the contract! In fact, as many strikers say themselves, these essential services should be brought back in-house.
Barts Health is the biggest acute health trust in the country, comprising five hospitals, and it is saddled by a massive private finance initiative (PFI) contract at the Royal London. In 2016 the trust was set to run a £134.9 million deficit. We demand the PFI contract is cancelled. Stop private profiteers leeching off our health service!
The strike has exposed the gross reality of working life for those who provide a crucial service without which there would be no NHS. The crushing conditions, the pressure of carrying the workload that used to be done by double, triple or quadruple the number of workers, the poverty pay so that many have to work two or three jobs just to eat.
This is the brutal result of outsourcing – the privatisation of our public services. Twenty years ago these were NHS staff, on NHS pay and conditions.
Since then, one company after another has ground more and more profit out of a group of workers who they mistakenly believed would not fight back.
Their demand for an extra 30p an hour, in reality a modest demand, would smash through the public sector pay cap and could inspire thousands more in the NHS to fight for decent pay.
The anger, the bold rebellion against their bosses, once given a lead, is a glimpse of the kind of battles that could come over the next period as working class people, weighed down by years of austerity, grinding poverty and intensification of work, start to break out and fight.
One of the reasons why the bosses have felt so confident to intensify exploitation is that there has been so little fight from the tops of the main health union, Unison.
As Frances Ryan commented in the Guardian, the workers “started organising, and what began in a fifth-floor canteen has turned into a summer of activism”. The canteen is a reference to the fantastic walkout in April when Serco tried to take away morning tea breaks.
But these workers didn’t just randomly “start organising”. This strike is a brilliant example of how fighting trade unions can be built.
These workers have been inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign and the offer of an anti-austerity alternative. After decades of New Labour offering little different from the Tories, big numbers of people have had their eyes opened and their confidence lifted by the possibility of an alternative.
They have seen thousands march to defend the NHS on the massive 4 March national demo.
And crucially, these factors came together with a fighting lead offered by the union.
Until very recently, many of these workers were not members of a union. The difference came with the transfer of porters and domestics at Whipps Cross hospital over into Unite from Unison, bringing with them their branch secretary, Socialist Party member Len Hockey. As the Unite organiser said when introducing the strike rally last week: “In Barts Trust, as far as Unite is concerned, there is BL and AL – Before Len and After Len”.
The Unison branch in Whipps Cross had a long history of action and victories. Twenty years ago porters struck and demonstrated against privatisation. In 2002 they set out to win harmonisation of pay, terms and conditions for new starters in line with workers employed prior to outsourcing.
This was a pioneering step. The much-celebrated campaign for a real living wage in London started from this struggle.
In a foretaste of the campaign across Barts Trust this year, mass recruitment to the union was key. In the words of Len Hockey: “Having a million conversations” with the mostly female domestic workers, from countries including Ghana and Nigeria.
The industrial action experience of the longer-organised porters helped show domestic workers the way. In the summer of 2003, porters and domestics participated in an inspirational movement for equality and the end of poverty pay.
The unity of black and white workers in action was a living example of how to defeat racism and the bosses’ divide-and-rule tactics.
However, as with Serco now, when the contracted company changed, it dragged its feet over implementation of the agreement, leading to further, victorious strike action in 2006.
The workers’ confidence and determination stemmed from the resolute local strike leadership. Len, as a Socialist Party member, had the support of many other workers and trade unionists and was able to draw upon that collective strength and experience to help to guide the dispute.
In July 2013 Barts Health Trust threatened £77.5 million of cuts and the Unison branch at Whipps Cross again launched a campaign. They mobilised the workforce and drew other unions and community campaigners behind them.
Mass meetings took place around the hospital. More workers joined the union and became stewards.
The trust had constantly denied there was a threat but the voice of the workers on those demos told a different story. It was later announced that 161 nursing and 60 managerial and clerical posts were to be axed, and 463 nursing posts would be downgraded.
Branch chair Charlotte Monro was suspended and then sacked on trumped up charges in an attempt to intimidate workers. She was reinstated following a campaign, and following a damning report by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) into the hospital including the culture of bullying towards staff. Four senior trust managers resigned.
At meeting after meeting workers said they wanted to fight the cuts, and raised their hands for strike action. The branch ran an indicative ballot for strike action with a 98% yes vote.
As three Unison branches organised in Barts Health Trust at the different hospitals, they all needed to be part of the campaign, so the Whipps Cross branch attempted discussion with the other branches.
Members rightly expected that the branch in Whipps Cross would get full backing from Unison’s regional officials. But workers were systematically blocked by the regional bureaucracy including denying members a strike ballot. This followed a history of undermining the branch and its leadership.
In 2014 Len and the porters’ and domestics’ stewards concluded they had no choice but to transfer membership from Unison to Unite if they were to give workers at Whipps and across the rest of Barts Trust the best chance of building a united struggle.
They explained: “To fight, we need to be able to organise action as a union, including strike action. Community campaigns are important, but it is the workforce that has the power to act decisively, if it is organised in an effective and combative union branch.”
The Socialist Party has always opposed premature breaks away from traditional unions. There are 1.3 million workers in Unison and the stewards explained that their resignation “does not for one minute mean we turn our backs on those workers, who are ‘lions led by donkeys’.
“We support a strategy to fight for a democratic and combative Unison, putting forward a fighting programme and candidates at all levels. We support the aim of building a left in the union based on those members and branches that want a fight.”
But this move to Unite was in order to preserve fighting trade unionism, so that the workforce would be able to organise and defend itself.
This move to Unite was opposed by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Their member in the trust, Sam Strudwick, wrote to all Unison members at Whipps Cross calling it a “damaging step” that “can only lead to cynicism and demoralisation”. She wrote in Socialist Worker: “This can only demoralise workers and boost the bosses.”
In fact the opposite has proved to be the case. Without the block from the top, workers across the different hospitals in the trust have been able to come together in one Unite branch.
Using the example of the struggle and victories at Whipps Cross, workers at the Royal London, Barts and Mile End hospitals have been convinced that fighting trade unionism is possible. Len has been backed up by Unite’s organising team.
In December 2016 workers including cleaners and porters at Whipps Cross and Mile End won a significant pay increase. The rise, over 20%, followed a sustained campaign by Unite.
The union’s success meant a pay rise from £7.20 to the current London Living Wage of £9.75 an hour. Casual ‘bank’ jobs would convert into permanent contracts.
This pay increase was won for all bank workers. But also and significantly, for all agency workers with 12 weeks’ minimum service indirectly employed by Serco in Whipps Cross, Barts, Mile End and Royal London, who had in some cases been on minimum rates for six years.
This huge victory then gave the confidence to fight for the current 3% pay claim. Through a meticulous and vigorous recruitment campaign, 1,100 have joined the union and the result is the magnificent action we see today.
It is fighting trade unionism that builds trade unions. The Unite branch offers a united front to all workers in the hospitals to build a massive fight to defend the NHS.
- To support the strike, send a message to [email protected]
- Bring a delegation from your workplace and union to the demonstration on Saturday 15 July, 12 noon starting at the Royal London (Whitechapel) to Mile End hospital
- Donations to branch LE/7384L sort code 60-83-01 account number 20344885
- See also: ‘Jubilant’ hospital workers strike against poverty pay in east London
- For a reply to Sam Strudwick written in 2014, see: Defending jobs, pay and services at Whipps Cross hospital
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 11 July 2017 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.