Domestics, porters and catering staff working for a private firm at Whipps Cross hospital in Leytonstone, east London, were celebrating victory this week in their battle for equality with colleagues employed by the NHS.
Two hundred workers, members of the Unison union, were involved in a series of strikes, which forced concessions from their employer Rentokil Initial and the hospital trust.
The struggle is an important victory against two-tier working - in which privatised workers earn less and work in worse conditions than directly employed staff.
Len Hockey, Unison joint branch secretary at Whipps Cross, told Socialist Worker, “Members have voted to accept the latest offer, which will end two-tier working. The company and the trust tried to renege on the agreement that was reached in 2003 through earlier industrial action.”
The workers took a total of eight days action earlier this year. The dispute was characterised by a high level of involvement from the workers - often there were dozens at a time on the picket line.
Cecilia Adjei, one of the low paid workers involved in the struggle, said, “They are going to give us most of what we wanted. The result is good. Before we didn’t have sick pay or decent annual leave. The strike was really justified. We kept going and the numbers involved increased all the time.”
Cecilia added that she was attending the Organising for Fighting Unions conference in November. “People have to discuss how to organise,” she said.
Len summed up what the workers had achieved: “The employers were not moving until we took industrial action. We’ve won all the back pay due to the workers from 1 April. We’ve got the terms of conditions of NHS workers from October.”
The workers also won most of the backdated London weighting they were owed - they will get around £750 of the money owed to them, up from an initial offer of £500 plus a £100 “good will” gesture offered towards the end of the dispute.
Len pointed out that further strikes would have cost the workers hundreds in lost pay. Whipps Cross shows the crucial importance of solidarity - including financial backing - from the wider union movement in order to allow badly paid workers to fight for their rights.
The workers may be forced to fight again in the near future. “They are seeking to bring ‘financial balance’ to the trust and workers are waiting to see how they will be affected,” said Len. “There is a growing rumour that the hospital is to be run down and services to be provided elsewhere in Essex.
“But workers feel they have won something in their dispute - we are going to take this mood into the campaign to save the hospital.”