strike victory in north devon nhs

by Mark Harper

The strike conducted at North Devon District Hospital on  5th-6th January has resulted in a victory for the UNISON members there.

Amid plans for further strike action, the North Devon Healthcare NHS Trust and private contractor, Sodexo eventually gave in to our demands for NHS terms and conditions for the outsourced porters, cleaners and catering staff. This has resulted in 7 days extra annual leave, sick pay, NHS pay levels with increments, increased Maternity pay and back pay worth up to £3,600 for each member of staff. Though most staff will only move to band 1 of the pay structure which is still too low, the improvement is a significant step forward.

We celebrated on the town square that weekend at a rally that was attended by UNISON General Secretary, Dave Prentis and the regional secretaries of UNISON and the PCS. One of the highlights of the rally was listening to a senior consultant at the hospital describing how hospitals could be run without managers and advocating that the current lot should all be sacked to improve staff morale. At the end of the rally everyone sang the old wobbly song “Solidarity Forever”. Hearing my fellow hospital workers sing a union song amongst union banners and clenched fists on Barnstaple Town square was a wonderful experience that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.

The actual victory came sooner than expected. Following the strike, management still in union busting mode, actually withdrew an earlier offer made prior to the strike. If this had been done to demoralise the workforce then they had grossly miscalculated the situation as it just made us more determined. Some union reps within the UNISON branch not employed by Sodexo also found themselves under scrutiny over their involvement in the strike. I was informed from two separate sources that the management of the Trust were “gunning for me”.

Despite this, throughout these days the mood remained positive, although the general feeling was that we were in for a long and bitter period of strike action before a victory would be achieved. Things changed quite quickly during the week that followed the strike. The North Devon Healthcare NHS Trust had to make an embarrassing climb down after initially denying to the media that scab labour had been used. Of course we’ll never know, but I expect several telephone calls may have been made to the Trust telling them to settle the dispute soon after this.

I’ve been asked several times what I think we did right and if there was anything the movement could learn from our victory at a time when victories are too few and often defensive in nature. Well, the answer is that we didn’t do anything that hasn’t been done thousands of times before. It was no overnight success either. My personal belief is that UNISON should have coordinated disputes and strike action at national level back in 2007 when the majority of NHS trusts decided to pocket the government money given to roll out NHS terms and conditions for outsourced “soft facility”staff. I believe that the union didn’t do this because they didn’t want to upset the Labour Government or the private contractors who at national level had agreed to the deal knowing that they wouldn’t have to pay for it. At Branch Level we waited too long for a Regional Officer that was prepared to run with the issue. In hindsight we should have had more confidence in ourselves to just get on and begin the dispute. From the start there had been an air of militancy among the members. This had become tinged with demoralisation after the expected escalation from UNISON failed to occur in 2007.

I think it was the coming together of an already militant workforce and a dedicated regional officer that provided the right mix which gave the union the confidence to pour in the resources. Once the resources came it was very noticeable how much latent power there is in a union like UNISON. Though we were lucky to have a couple of very good officials, through out it was the membership that recruited and continually pushed the dispute forward. By the time of the strike the line between member and activist had all but disappeared.

What I’ve learnt from this dispute is that there is an enormous amount of potential militancy and energy out there in workplaces that is rarely tapped by the trade unions. That a union is at its strongest when the distinction between activist and member is at its most blurred. Also that the confidence of workers increases with leaps and bounds when they belong to an organisation that is willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. What I’ve witnessed from UNISON has restored my faith in the potential of my union but not its leadership. UNISON members in the same situation are still fighting to get this deal on a branch by branch basis when what is needed is national action. I think what holds back UNISON and in fact all trade unions is their bureaucratic nature and affiliation with reformist politics.

The only type of union that can be guaranteed to fight immediately and every time is one that is directly controlled by its membership so that the union truly is the membership and can draw confidence from itself. A union of this type can never be attached to any political party that intends to put the interests of capitalism above the interests of the workers.