Bart’s strike – a small strike with big implications

Overwhelming strike vote announced
The strike by ancillary hospital workers at Bart’s Health Trust which started in July has been a hard struggle against their employer SERCO, writes Susan Pashkoff, Chair of East London Unite Community.

We are talking about the invisible workers that you see every day at the hospital, the cleaners, the porters, the security staff, and the catering staff. They are there, but we rarely acknowledge them. Viewed as interchangeable by their employers, ignored by patients and their families, they are the people that keep the hospital clean, ensure the safety of patients and their well-being. This is a story of people that are considered low-skilled, easily replaceable, who are daring to fight for better wages and working conditions.

It is also a bit more as well. It is a struggle over the impact of privatisation and outsourcing and protecting workers’ rights, conditions of work and salaries. This small strike could have serious implications due to the increased privatisation and outsourcing of NHS services. This fight will hopefully be replicated elsewhere and have wider implications. Organising trade unions for low-skilled and low-paid workers will be an ongoing struggle due to increased precariousness of workers in Britain and elsewhere.

Some history

Bart’s Trust, composed of 5 hospitals, has a massive debt due to Private Financing Initiative (PFI) funding of over £134 million pounds (their initial PFI debt was £1.1 billion). PFIs offered private finance to upgrade schools and hospitals.

Initiated during the Tory government under John Major in 1992, they proliferated under Labour from 1997 under Tony Blair (Gordon Brown was a big fan). Essentially, private funds were secured for large development projects in the public sector which would be paid back over time with interest (of course).

In the case of the National Health Service (NHS), this borrowing is essentially being paid back from funds from the NHS provided by the government. If you are wondering how a business which doesn’t earn money directly from patients can pay back a debt like this you are not alone. PFI debt repayments are bleeding the NHS dry. So, even if money from the government is increased, large portions of it are used to repay PFI debt.

On the other hand, there are private service contractors. In many senses, privatisation of finance and privatisation of services go hand in hand. PFI debts have been the excuse for more and more privatisation of services and the outsourcing of jobs and working contracts to private providers like Serco.

Serco is a private provider of public services. Instead of workers in prisons, transport, health, military etc working for the public sector, Serco provides this labour and manages these services instead. With poor working conditions including zero hour contracts, and lower wages, doing the “dirty work” of the public sector, Serco and other corporations like it (e.g., G4S) are part and parcel of undermining the public sector through privatisation of services and outsourcing unionised public sector contracts.

The state is paying Serco as an intermediary rather than having the work done by public sector workers. Serco provides the services by rationalising the workforce; in this way, the public sector’s services become privatised. Profitable parts of the public sector (e.g., blood testing, tissue testing) are being done either by private sector hospitals or private service providers.

For Serco, this is a prize plum. Run by Rupert Soames (the grandson of Winston Churchill), Serco has a chequered history. Caught in a £70 million fraud of the British government involving the tagging of dead, released and non-existent prisoners, Serco was in a serious crisis.  In 2014, Soames was brought in to rehabilitate the company and its reputation.

The company has not paid dividends on profits since 2014, but this year things are picking up, and contracts like the Bart’s Health Trust one are helping Soames turn around the company’s fortunes. A £600 million contract from Bart’s Health will certainly help its turnaround and moreover, they posted profits of £82 million in 2016.

Like all profit-making businesses, profits are made through cost-cutting; overworking labourers, keeping wages down, and no training and support for workers.

It began with a tea break

Originally working as part of the NHS, Bart’s Health Trust privatised these workers’ jobs and contracts; they were literally given to Serco as part of an outsourcing/privatisation contract. Serco would now be their employers rather than the NHS. Theoretically, this would save Bart’s Trust money as Serco would consolidate all these contracts under one provider. So, Serco won the £600 million pound contract to “provide and manage” the services formerly done by NHS staff .

Working for the NHS is a point of pride; you are employed in one of the most cherished institutions in Britain. Workers went from guaranteed jobs with protection working for the jewel of the public sector to a company whose treatment of their workers was highly exploitative and had a rather dodgy reputation; it is best known for managing prisons and deportation centres but it has its tentacles in many sectors.

A workforce of more than 400 people in 4 different hospitals owned and operated by Bart’s Health Trust in East London have been taking strike action since July (the workers of 4 out of the 5 hospitals in the trust are on strike, these are Whipps Cross, St. Bart’s, Royal London, and Mile End; Newham hospital is not on strike).

This is a strike of mostly middle aged immigrant women from Africa whose work not only covered their bills here but also provides income that is sent home to help their families. Organising workers that are seen as unskilled who earn low wages and have little or no savings is incredibly hard. Simply joining a union means that some money that you need for yourself or to be sent home to your family is given to the union.

Building a strike fund is essential and even that may not be enough if the strike is prolonged. Serco merely has to keep negotiations going (while offering little or nothing) until the workers are pressurised to go back to work.

Problems with Serco started within 3 days of their taking over the contracts; over a tea break that was part of their NHS contract. As workers were sitting down for their morning tea break at Royal London Hospital, they were informed by their new managers that they were not going to have their 10 minute tea break anymore; it was scrapped without consultation.

120 workers staged a wild-cat strike, refusing to leave the cafeteria until they got their tea break back. They won, the tea break was saved. Small victories give you hope; the work is hard and Serco is making it even harder.

Serco gave the workers the London Living wage of £9.75/hour before the strike started; Serco thinks that this increase is generous and sufficient. But workers are asked to take on more and more varied work; they are asked whether they can do tasks previously done by others, their workload increases significantly. If someone agrees to do this work, the work is being covered and Serco doesn’t have to hire other people to do it. Serco is also threatening to cut Porters’ jobs at Whipps Cross hospital.

When they worked for the public sector, the workers were guaranteed a paltry (and insufficient) 1% wage increase (limited by the public sector pay cap. Would they be able to keep even this? What about their pensions, would they stay in the NHS or would Serco be dealing with their pensions?

What about the increased cost of living? Following the Grenfell fire and revelations of how badly the pay gap has impacted public sector workers, the government is talking about eliminating the 1% pay cap for some workers.  But unskilled workers are out of the public’s eye and are only likely to benefit if the cap as a whole is abolished as Labour is demanding.

“The fight of the Bart’s strikers is a fight for the NHS”

Back in July, the workers union UNITE called a strike ballot. For the ballot to be recognised 50% of workers need to participate in voting for a strike action and at least 50% need to vote in support of the strike action. The vote in favour of strike action was a success, 99% of cleaners, porters, and security guards support the strike.

The demands of the strikers are threefold:

  • A 3% (30p) an hour wage increase to cover for the increased costs of living
  • End to threatened job cuts of Porters at Whipps Cross
  • Decreased workload, which means that Serco will need to hire people

Strike action started: first a 2 day strike from July 4, then a week from July 11, then two weeks from July 25. Even though it is illegal to hire scabs to break a strike, union organisers and striking workers are worried that agencies will provide workers on temporary contracts.

If hospital cleaners are not doing their job, it can have serious implications for patients. Serco is currently “negotiating” with the workers and further action has been postponed.

So far, guarantees of the 1% public sector workers increase have been given. Pensions will remain with the NHS, so there is no worry about Serco’s provision of pensions.

But Serco has refused to budge on the 3% pay increase despite the fact that the contract that they won is worth £600 million and this will certainly not bankrupt them. At the same time, giving in here may have an impact on their future profits from outsourcing of NHS services at other hospitals. Moreover, they don’t want to cave into the demands of low skilled, low waged workers as it may lead other workers to organise strikes.

Strike support and solidarity comes in many forms. It involves standing alongside striking workers at their picket lines and making sure that local employment agencies know it is illegal to provide temporary workers to break a strike. It is also building a strike fund so that if workers want to continue striking, they have money to keep them going.

Willie Howard and Len Hockey, the Unite the Union for the branch that includes the Barts strikers, have spoken to local unions, Trades Councils and NHS support groups. The striking workers have received not only donations for the strike fund, but also solidarity on the picket lines from many different groups. The local Labour Party has raised funds at local tube stations and held a fundraiser which brought in thousands of pounds. Protests at Serco meetings have been held uniting people in a sense of solidarity. There is a community effort to support our community hospitals’ workers.

Negotiations are ongoing, the longer Serco holds out the better for them. Strike ballots only have a limited shelf life and having another strike ballot probably will not get the same results as previously;  even with a strike fund covering lost wages for this many people is not possible. All decisions about continuing the strike or not are in the hands of the workers, as they should be in all democratic organisations.

But this little strike is an important one, especially considering the continued outsourcing of work from the public to private sector companies. What we are seeing is the impact of PFIs on hospitals, the impact of outsourcing of NHS service contracts, and the ongoing struggle for dignity and respect by workers. Whatever the outcome of the strike, there have been victories and this is, in many senses, only the first salvo.

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