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Organising against the two-tier workforce
SIX HUNDRED caterers, laundry workers and domestics were on strike at Aintree Hospital, Liverpool, on 20 and 21 June. They are members of GMB, TGWU and UNISON.
Andy Ford, Amicus North Manchester NHS Branch, personal capacity
They held a lively, colourful and good-natured demonstration and picket outside the Aintree University Hospital Trust. Around 50 workers, in their brightly coloured uniforms - red for the laundry, blue for the caterers, and yellow for the domestics - chanted and blew whistles at each of the two gates into the hospital.
Passing cars and lorries and visitors showed their support and were met with cheers from the assembled workers. The strikers have been joined by NHS staff, and at times even patients.
Despite the fact that the 350 domestics, 40 laundry workers and 100 or so caterers work at Aintree Hospital they are not NHS employees. They are employed by Initial Hospital services, part of the giant Rentokil empire. Workers told me that they have been employed by three different companies over recent years - RCO, ISS, and now Initial.
A union rep explained to me the pay differences between the NHS staff and the Initial employees: "We're on the minimum wage - £4.85 an hour. The NHS minimum is £5.87 after Agenda for Change. If it's supposed to be equal pay for work of equal value we should be on £5.87 as well", she said.
The workers were offered £5.00 an hour in April, but the national minimum wage is due to increase to £5.05 per hour later this year anyway. When the workforce rejected £5 and instructed the unions to go ahead with a strike ballot, the company offered to bring forward the extra 5p and backdate it to April this year. 40p a day more for calling off the strike! And they would still have been left on the minimum wage.
On holidays and sick pay it's not much better. "We get minimum holidays, 20 days", said the union steward. "The hospital staff are going to get 27 days, 33 after 10 years service. And we only get 12 days sick pay, but the NHS has a proper sick pay system.
"We were getting nowhere. The Trust say they've got no money, Initial say they've got no money, and the contract's got a fixed price. So, we're out here".
But Initial do have money for some people. Doug Flynn, Rentokil Initial's Chief Executive, is to be paid £800,000 in this year, with up to another £800,000 in bonus. With bonuses he could be on £30,000 a week - over £750 an hour.
His predecessor, James Wilde, was removed after profits fell by 14% in 2004 - and he still got more than £1 million as a 'golden goodbye'.
Nearly all the Initial workers are in one or other of the trade unions. The unions picked up the last few non-members in the build-up to the dispute. The strike ballot was won by 97.5%, and workers said that they have never been so united. The joint trade unions were convening a mass meeting after the strike to decide on the next move.
Aintree is not the only trust where contract workers have decided to make a stand against exploitation. A dispute at the Norfolk and Norwich trust went to arbitration after the threat of strike action pushed Serco into moving from £4.85 to £5.60 an hour.
What happens at Aintree and Norwich is important. There are thousands of contract workers across the NHS, all on minimum wages, holidays and sick pay. The two disputes prove that where NHS contracted-out workers are organised, united and determined they can make big advances in pay and conditions.
The mass meeting was told that Initial have offered to improve pay to £5.50 an hour. Union officials asked the workers to accept the increase and hold off further action until the end of July, when they expect developments on the government's pledges on ending the two-tier workforce. We will see.
In The Socialist 30 June 2005: