Strikers at the Barts NHS trust in east London are digging in for Christmas and New Year. The hospital staff are known for their militancy, and the local Unite union has a string of important victories under its belt.
Workers in the laundry and soft facilities have combined with porters, cooks and cleaners to demand they all be paid the government’s “Covid Bonus”. They’ve been on strike this week and are set to be out on Christmas Day and Boxing Day too.
But recently new groups of workers have joined the long-running, multi-issue dispute and are starting to make their mark.
Pathology workers were also on strike on Wednesday and Thursday this week. “We are the least likely pickets you’ll ever meet,” say laboratory workers Sarah and Dennis, who between them have more than four decades of work under their belts.
Sarah talks with genuine pride about the service she helps provide and the importance of blood for transfusion to the hospital system. She talks about the patients whose lives she’s helped save and who she continues to monitor from afar.
Sarah says she’s in the job because she cares about the health service and patients, and that’s why she studied for three years to gain a masters degree.
But there’s a deep frown on her face when she talks about the future, and the prospect of re-applying for her own job. “I think it’s insulting,” she says. “I feel devalued and demoralised, but management say I should think of it as a ‘positive experience’.”
And being interviewed for the jobs they already do is only one part of the problem. Management also wants to rip up established working patterns and impose a 24 hours a day, seven day a week rotation.
“At the moment there are separate day and night teams. People build their lives around that, their caring or childcare commitments. Now it’s all thrown up in the air. People are really worried about the future,” says Dennis.
Both Sarah and Dennis say that being on strike has opened their eyes. “The strike has brought us all together and empowered us. We’ve met colleagues that we don’t normally see, people that work at different sites and so on,” says Dennis.
“Yes, it shows we are not just going to roll over,” says Sarah. “Management is certainly not happy about us having a union now.
“They keep trying to undermine the strike by telling us that Unite is not fighting for the same things that we are demanding.
“But that strategy clearly isn’t working,” she says, pointing to pickets now singing along with Christmas songs playing on a portable sound system.
Unite shop steward Zarina says that management have started to negotiate with the union, but that its slow work and a “point by point” battle is being fought. “The talks are the reason why we must keep up the pressure,” she says. “And that’s why we are prepared for more action in the new year.”
That determination was on display at the rally of all Barts striking workers later that morning. Facilities striker Millicent warned management that workers remain absolutely determined to get what is rightfully theirs—their “Covid Bonus”.
“We all worked during Covid,” she said to loud cheers. “Some people are getting the bonus and some are left out. We are always the last people, but we are not going to allow that to happen to us anymore. We want the company to come to the table and listen to our voice.”
At the rally, Zarina made a point of thanking all those that joined the action for the first time this week. “Our branch is getting stronger, day by day. We’ve got to stick up for ourselves and not be taken for granted,” she told strikers, to cheers and hoots from Vuvuzelas.
Together they then took off on a now customary march around the hospital making a noise that their bosses could surely hear.
This combined dispute has allowed the union to reach new parts of the workforce and to build organisation where there was little or none. Across Britain there are scores of union branches, in all the main health unions, that could learn from the strategy.
And with junior doctors’ stepping up their action in January, its vital that all health workers also increase their solidarity with them. We mustn’t allow the government or management to pick off individual groups of hospital workers that are fighting back.
And that’s another reason why the resolve to secure a win for all Barts strikers must continue into the new year.
Some names have been changed.
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