Unite Barts convenor Len Hockey speaking at a rally at Whipps Cross hospital, photo Isai Priya
Unite Barts convenor Len Hockey speaking at a rally at Whipps Cross hospital, photo Isai Priya

Strike wins pay rise and an end to outsourcing

Rob Williams, Socialist Party industrial organiser

Unite union members in Barts NHS Trust in east London, the largest in the country, are celebrating a fantastic victory after two weeks of strikes. We send our congratulations to Unite and its members and reps, including the union’s branch secretary Len Hockey, a longstanding member of the Socialist Party.

The low-paid workers, porters, cleaners, catering staff and security, are employed across five east London hospitals, including Whipps Cross, Royal London and St Bartholomew’s, by notorious outsourcing giant Serco, with an estimated turnover of nearly £4 billion. During the pandemic alone, Serco has been responsible for multiple strikes by Unite members in London – from the Bexley bin workers to the Ealing traffic wardens.

The Barts workers rejected the miserly 1% pay offer from Serco last year, but always placed the issue of ditching the parasitic privateer and being brought in-house on NHS contracts, central to the dispute. Just by winning their strike ballot, the bosses were forced to up their pay offer to 3%, mirroring that offered to workers directly employed by the NHS. But because they are outsourced, the real gap is far wider, at up to 15%.

Unite rejected this offer when real inflation was rising, now beyond 7%, and moved to an industrial action ballot, which was won with a 97.7% yes vote. However, the other recognised union at Barts Trust, Unison, broke ranks and put the 3% pay offer to its members.

Incredibly, a Unison full-time organiser has claimed credit for this victory: “Unison is proud of the deal we negotiated, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of our members at Barts.” But it was the brave, well-supported, and vibrant strike action by Unite members that forced bosses to the negotiating table.

Workers took to the picket lines at the three hospitals in the first two weeks of February. There were huge mobilisations, with well over 100 at the hospitals, often singing and dancing. They organised strike demonstrations outside each hospital of hundreds of striking workers and their supporters across the labour and trade union movement. Management was in no doubt that the action would continue and escalate unless an acceptable agreement was reached.

That improved offer includes the 3% pay rise backdated to last April, plus a one-off payment of £400. But crucially, it also confirms that the workers will be brought back in-house on 1 May 2023. The workers have insisted that this is done on NHS pay, terms and conditions. If there is any delay, the agreement commits to backdating any NHS pay rise to the time of transfer.

On this basis, the reps agreed to suspend the first of their next two weeks of planned strike action, particularly as the Barts NHS Trust board was meeting on 2 March to confirm the insourcing. Some, like the Socialist Workers Party, wrongly criticised this decision, saying that it was a mistake. But the reps knew that they were close to an important victory that was then confirmed on 3 March. If the Trust board meeting went back on commitments given, reps and members were prepared to go ahead with the second scheduled strike week. They will now be vigilant to ensure that the agreement is delivered by the Trust management, which knows that workers will resume the action if they renege.

This dispute is part of the growing strike wave that has developed as the Tories and the bosses look to squeeze workers’ incomes, trying to make them pay for the Covid crisis. Workers are showing that they won’t accept this and are fighting, and increasingly winning, as the Barts NHS strike shows.

But as well as securing a wage rise, they have also pushed back against the privatisation agenda that has been used to attack the livelihoods of workers in the NHS and elsewhere in the public sector for decades. This was the experience of the Barts NHS workers themselves. Their victory should be seen as an inspiration for other outsourced public sector workers and for NHS staff as they face up to another paltry 3% pay offer, that is in reality a massive pay cut. Barts strikers have shown that action wins.

Len Hockey, Unite Barts convenor and Socialist Party member, says:

“Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power! What kind of power? Union power!” These words chanted regularly by workers on the Serco Bart’s strike picket lines, marches and rallies, sum up the key lessons of this historic victory. That is that when workers are provided leadership, are conscious of their strength and mobilised in action, then they are an unstoppable force for changing their pay and conditions.

The victory by Unite members employed by Serco in Bart’s health branch (LE7384L) was not pre-ordained, but was rooted in the combined factors of the raw experiences of exploitation under the capitalist policy of outsourcing on the one hand, and on the other, the implacable will and confidence of the local collective trade union leadership to carry forward the campaign to a successful conclusion.

A landmark win, the deal, along with a rise in  basic pay at 3% and lump-sum pay increases of £400, has secured a commitment from the Trust that the NHS pay rates would be backdated should delay occur post transfer date of 1 May 2023. Also, it includes lump-sum payments for agency workers. Paid breaks are achieved for all, in addition to the existing non-paid ones, and where there were previously none (this is something which is not included in the NHS national Agenda for Change agreement). Unite must now use the example of this victory widely, to build confidence and give the example that where health workers fight, they can win.

A lesson to all outsourced workers: if you fight, you can win!

Naomi Byron, outsourced NHS worker and Unison national executive low-paid seat (personal capacity)

The Barts victory is fantastic news. 1,800 staff will be brought back in-house on NHS pay and conditions from 1 May next year.

I visited the picket lines. The strike was powerful. Hundreds of workers walked out for two weeks, proving in practice what everyone knew already: hospitals cannot function without domestics, porters, security or catering staff.

The picket lines were fantastic. Pickets really believed in the action. Many said: ‘this isn’t about the money, this is about fighting for the NHS, this is about treating us as human beings’.

It’s very sad that they were forced to go on strike to win such a basic demand. But they were forced to by the Trust’s inaction.

This is a lesson for all outsourced workers: if you fight, you can win!

The strike in Barts Trust didn’t come from nowhere. It was prepared over years, with good union organisation and active reps on the ground. A strike last year against shift changes and bullying had already forced Serco to withdraw from the contract. It will inspire other outsourced workers to follow their example.