The first national strike in the NHS for 17 years began on Thursday of last week. Unison union members at five depots of NHS Logistics - the not for profit agency that supplies hospitals across England - struck for 24 hours in a battle against privatisation.
A second 24-hour strike was due to start on Tuesday night, as Socialist Worker went to press.
DHL, best known as a parcel courier, is set to take over next week. The change of employer means that, under the anti-union laws, workers will have to reballot to take further action.
According to the Financial Times, another ballot is planned and further strikes could be timed to coincide with action by GMB union members already employed by DHL (see box).
Almost 1,000 workers were involved in last week’s action. At the Runcorn depot in Cheshire 100 union members picketed as the strike got under way on Thursday night.
The Normanton depot in West Yorkshire was, “at least 98 percent solid, with many workers spending more time on the picket line than they were due to spend in work,” according to Chris Kowalczyk, Unison branch secretary at the depot.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis joined about 30 workers on the picket line outside the depot in Maidstone, Kent, on Friday morning last week.
He told Socialist Worker, “Today is a tremendous display of solidarity. These workers are providing a first class service for the NHS. They go the extra mile for patients, and yet they are being sold off.”
Julia Chandler, the chair of Unison at the Maidstone depot, said, “I think the turnout for the strike has been excellent. I’m sorry we’ve had to do this. But I’m proud to work for the NHS - we are the backbone of the health service.”
Most of those involved in the actions had never struck before, but in the run up to the strike workers rushed to join the union. Sixty people joined in three weeks at the Maidstone depot alone.
Workers are worried that when NHS Logistics is taken over by DHL their terms and conditions will be under attack. The company has already started posting out new contracts without consulting Unison.
“I’ve got friends who work as drivers for DHL and the stories I’ve heard are not good,” said Alfred McMullen, who earns about £14,000 a year working as a picker in the Maidstone depot.
Like many of those on strike, Alfred felt that action should have been taken earlier. “We should have done this a couple of years ago, when they first started talking about privatisation,” he said.
Workers who spoke to Socialist Worker said they wanted to see a rapid escalation of action.
Further strikes could send a clear message to the company not to attack terms and conditions, and could potentially force the government to bring the agency back into the NHS.
The Logistics strike has already shown that a small group of determined workers can push the issue of privatisation onto the top of the news agenda - and inspire others faced with similar battles.
Sarah Barwick is the assistant branch secretary of Kent local government Unison and also sits on the union’s national executive. She attended the Maidstone picket line in solidarity with the workers.
She said, “My branch pledged £500 towards the strike fund. The NHS should not be run for profit. This is about a multinational taking profits for shareholders.
“Privatisation doesn’t work - look at rail privatisation or the privatisation of school meals. Now that they’re talking about going back to healthy school meals, the private contractors are pulling out.”
Labour’s privatisation agenda is having a political impact on workers at NHS Logistics. Tony Owens, a night shift worker in Maidstone, said, “I blame the upper echelons of the Labour Party for this. I’ve voted Labour since I could first vote, but now they seem to be forgetting the grassroots.”
Alfred McMullen added, “I’ve voted Labour in the past. I don’t want to vote Tory or Lib Dem, so I don’t know what to do - I’m going to have to give it a lot of thought. Lots of the workers here are in the same position.”
Alfred does not see himself as a hardened industrial militant. Like his workmates, he has never taken action in his time at NHS Logistics.
“I think management were surprised to see me out,” he said. “They think of me as a hard worker who gets on with things. But I’m in the union, I voted to come out, and here I am.”
The sense of solidarity was echoed around the country. Karen Reissmann, a Manchester health worker who sits on Unison’s health service group executive, visited the Runcorn picket line in Cheshire.
She said, “The picket line was fantastic. Virtually everyone who would have been working on Thursday night instead came to picket. They were joined by workers coming off the day shift.”
Jean Allan, Unison branch secretary at Runcorn, said, “Not one person crossed our picket line. We don’t want DHL to take over, and we’re keen to show them they can’t treat us in the way they treat other workers.”
Labour’s commitment to the free market, set to continue under Gordon Brown, will see many more battles over privatisation.
NHS Logistics workers have shown the spirit of resistance that their leaders need to spread and fully support.
Thousands of GMB union members employed at 102 locations by DHL are to vote on strikes over plans to sack up to 3,000 permanent staff and replace them with 2,500 casual staff.
The bosses’ plan shows what a brutal company it is. But the resistance could also fuse with the struggle at NHS Logistics.
The DHL workers being balloted pick up, sort and deliver packages. As part of a three year pay offer, DHL wants to make about 70 percent of the staff who drive the red and yellow delivery vans redundant and replace them with casual staff whose only remuneration will be 62p per package delivered.
The deal also involves pay rises of just 1.9 percent in year one, 2.5 percent in year two and 2.5 percent in year three.
Mick Rix, GMB executive officer for members at DHL, said, “DHL is proposing a rapid return to Victorian mill owner values, where our members will be thrown on the dole, while casual non contracted workers will be brought in.”
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said, “I am appalled to hear how DHL are acting . How can the government continue with the sale of NHS Logistics to a company that can do this?”