north devon hospital strike

by a UNISON branch official
(personal capacity)

On 5th-6th January over 200 UNISON low paid porters, domestics and catering staff working for Sodexo took strike action.  This dispute arose after Sodexo and the North Devon Healthcare NHS Trust, which contracts Sodexo to provide hotel services, refused to honour a government agreement aimed at achieving NHS terms and conditions for these staff. In 2005 the Labour government had signed this agreement with NHS employers, private contractors and trade unions with the intention of bringing the two tier workforce within the NHS to an end by October 2006. NHS trusts were given a total of £75 million to pass on to private contractor “soft facility” staff working in hospitals.

The ideology behind the private contractor agreement was clearly New Labour. Despite giving money for implementation it was never made enforceable. As fits their ideology, the leaders of New Labour didn’t want to be seen as interfering with the internal workings of individual NHS trusts. Bringing private contractor staff back in house was not even mentioned. The net result was that many Trusts took the money but then refused to implement the agreement which has meant that ordinary union members have had to fight like hell for it.

It became clear from the start that it wasn’t going to be easy to get Sodexo and the North Devon Healthcare Trust to adhere to the agreement. Our campaign began three and a half years ago.  We began writing letters to the Trust and Sodexo and their response was a point blank refusal to sit down jointly and talk to us.  However we did manage to get the two pre-phases of the agreement implemented which resulted in a pay increase for our members. The employers delayed us but we thought we were making progress. However, by early 2009 we were told that the agreement would not be implemented despite implementation occurring in the vast majority of hospitals across the country by this time.  With a disillusioned membership growing increasingly angry with the union for failing to take things a step further, we felt close to defeat. The branch officials had felt disappointed that UNISON had failed to deliver the coordinated national fight we all had hoped for in 2007. We needed more help from UNISON to breathe new life into the campaign.

In summer 2009 we were allocated a new full time officer.  At our first meeting with her we explained that the Sodexo dispute was the burning issue of the branch and that many of our members were on poverty pay and had no sick pay at all.  Branch officials said that the members just needed to hear that the Regional office would take the dispute all the way if necessary. Branch officials insisted that this would be all that was needed to gain the increased membership and activists necessary to put up a good fight for the agreement.  We had a meeting a couple of weeks later where our 90 Sodexo members attended. At this meeting we heard again how some workers had to take unpaid sick leave after contracting hospital acquired infections in their jobs. A few had even cancelled having operations because they couldn’t afford to take the time off or had come back to work before being fully recovered. From that moment on the wheels of the juggernaut that is UNISON began to turn for us. The full time officer told the members to go back and recruit their non-union workmates. Within a couple of months membership had risen to over 200 (85% of all staff) and the number of Sodexo shop stewards had risen from one to five.  The mood amongst the workers was becoming increasingly militant.  UNISON, seeing the importance of this dispute, began to pour in the resources. The dispute became more than one between our members and Sodexo and their contracting Trust. It had become a signal to all other NHS Trusts and private contractors within hospitals that the implementation of this agreement would not wait any longer.

The Northern Devon Healthcare Trust finally agreed to meet with us in late 2009 but continued what appeared to be delaying tactics.  They cancelled the long awaited talks in September.  Sick of waiting for three years our members lodged an official dispute and called in ACAS. A second meeting was called for November. After the Trust also cancelled this, we voted for a strike ballot. It was clear that this was going to be the only way to get them to talk to us and achieve implementation. The workers themselves had pushed for this and now they had the full backing of the union

The membership voted 97% for escalating strike action on a very high turn out. In the build up to the strike we set about a relentless campaign of media press releases and lobbies of the Trust board of directors.  We even put up four 20 foot banners on the road up to the hospital.  Within the hospital itself posters went up quicker than management could pull them down.

At one minute past midnight on 5th January UNISON members walked out and were greeted by the first pickets.  By 5am the pickets and supporters had grown to 30 workers and the snow had begun to fall.  By 10am there were well over 100 of us in the snow.  To a tune of continuous beeping of car horns in support, it was a beautiful sight.  One of the full time officers turned to me and said that though he was freezing, he was glad to be there to witness this. One of the trust directors threatened to call the police. He picked on one male picket and two female pickets close to retirement. He obviously didn’t feel brave enough to tackle the mass of strikers at the main entrance.  The police never arrived.  I guess they probably told him to stop wasting their time.

Sodexo brought in scab labour from Hillingdon Hospital in London. This just enraged us more. They are actually on NHS terms and conditions themselves won for them by UNISON. They said that they will return when we strike again. Since going back to work the Trust and Sodexo have withdrawn their previous offer of part of the deal which was due to begin in January. This appears to be an act of retaliation.  They have said that they will consider implementation in April if enough ‘efficiency savings’ i.e. job cuts can be identified. Doubtless to say we will be on strike again in the next few days. The employers have intimidated some of our stewards and members during this dispute but what they fail to realise is that it just makes us stronger.

The workers have been blown away by the messages of solidarity and pledges of financial support from other trade unions in Britain and around the world. It’s a reminder of what working class solidarity can achieve.

Messages of support can be sent to Donations will be very gratefully received and can be sent to ‘North Devon Health Branch Hardship Fund’, at  Union Office, Suite 2, Munro House, North Devon District Hospital, Raleigh Park, Barnstaple, North Devon, EX31 4JB