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Huge picket line at the Leeds General Infirmary

Huge picket line at the Leeds General Infirmary

This morning saw thousands of NHS workers walk out on industrial action across the country, 450,000 to be exact. The strike took place from the early hours of the morning, 7am-11pm with Socialist Party members in Leeds being on the pickets from the early hours in support.

Ben Mayor & Iain Dalton, Leeds Socialist Party

This fight today was over pay, as NHS workers have not received a pay rise in three years whilst experiencing increased pressures at work with low staffing levels. Socialist Party members in Leeds spoke with strikers across the two main Hospitals in Leeds, the Leeds General Infirmary (LGI) and St James (Jimmy’s).

Picketing numbers seemed to have either held up or increased from the last big strike involving NHS workers on November 30th 2011 during the pensions dispute (which involved various professional associations in the NHS as well as the main health unions). The picket line at the Beckton Centre, manned by members of the GMB and Unison, had 20 there rather than 2 duringt he strike almost 3 years ago.

Unison and GMB pickets at Beckton Centre

Unison and GMB pickets at Beckton Centre

Workers where clearly angry, and rightly so about pay, as many workers across all sectors and industries have faced increased hardship under the current pay freeze inflicted upon us all. A Unison study, a union of 300,000 NHS staff found that 1 in 5 NHS staff had taken on second jobs just to cope with rising costs. Salary levels across the board had dropped by between 8-12%.

It was clear however, when talking to workers that pay was just the start of the issues they faced at work. Highlighting the absurdity of the situation, two managers had deemed it useful time to watch over the strikers while out on strike, moving up and down the different picket lines. One worker joked that I bet they have cameras in their coats, a Socialist Party member responded saying, ‘we should take pictures of them, and highlight that the hospital trusts are willing to waste money on managers ‘watching over’ strikes.

Porters within the Leeds trust had recently received a £1,200 decrease in their salary just to see three new managers employed on inflated salaries within their department. This strikes at the hypocrisy of the situation. Apparently there is no money for a pay rise for the majority, to afford the essentials in life, but money for inflated salaries of managers. Many rightly made the links to the privatisation that is going on in the NHS at the current time, as in line with the government agenda, of creating a health care system for profit and not on need.

The situation for the majority of NHS workers from porters, cleaners, maintenance staff, nurses, occupational therapists is dire. As the NHS is handed an ever tightening budget pressures are increasing on every other aspects of work as staff attempt to provide essential services to the public.

Socialist Party members join the picket line at the LGI

Socialist Party members join the picket line at the LGI

The strikers told Socialist party members of the increasing workload with often dangerous staffing levels meaning that staff were being constantly over worked. Bullying was a commonplace in many stories that we listened to, one worker, suffering with psoriasis was told that he could not take sick leave in order to attend much needed hospital appointments, but instead had to use his limited annual leave. This story was sadly not the only similar one were heard.

A couple of NHS agency workers had also joined the picket lines. They angrily related to us the fact that NHS pays the agency they are empolyed by £460 a week, whilst they only receive £260 in wages. As one of them said “If they took us on directly, they could pay us a decent wage and they’d still save money from what they’re paying out now. It’s ridiculous!”

Socialist Party members however responded positively with workers taking action whilst talking to staff who approached the picket line, talking of the importance of the union and the need to join. Many taking leaflets and application forms to join and supporting the action, a sense of militancy was in the air, as the Midwives joined the action with the banners proclaiming ‘enough is enough’.

Moira Mohit, an Royal College of Midwives (RCM) member told us “It’s the first time we’ve been balloted to come out for industrial action. Over the last few years we’ve only had 1% pay rises which isn’t even keeping with inflation, which is a pay cuts. For the rest of the week we’ll be taking our statutory breaks which we’re struggling to take at the moment – morale amongst midwives is really low.”

Unison, Unite, GMB and RCM members picketing together at St James' Hospital

Unison, Unite, GMB and RCM members picketing together at St James’ Hospital

As participants in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), we were gaining support for our letters calling upon perspective Labour party candidates in the next year’s election to support the repealing of the anti-trade union laws, for a living wage, the scrapping of zero-hour contracts and the re-nationalisation and public ownership of the utilities and previously sold off public services. This gained tremendous support from across all the picket lines, with groups signing the petition at once, and others encouraging colleagues to do so.

We also pointed out however, that the Labour Party was unlikely to support such proposals, given their recent record on implementing the cuts, attacks on trade unions and the promise of the same cuts as the Tories in 2015 if they are successful in the election. We raised the prospect of a new organisation, one in the trade unions, of ordinary members, and in the community to actually fight the cuts and the myth of austerity, pointing to the example of our Southampton councillors. Who have successfully fought cuts and saved services by working with campaigners and the unions. This gained tremendous support, even from nominal Labour Party members.

It however invited the attack from a Labour Party councillor, who had proclaimed to be against the cuts, stating that if ‘we oppose the cuts, a civil servant will run the council and we definitely don’t want that do we’. This is a shameful position to hold, how the Labour party can be considered a credible alternative, in essence proclaiming, better our cuts than theirs! The Labour party cannot proclaim to be opposed to cuts whilst inflicting them. We don’t trust them at council level, so don’t trust them at national level.

Our message went down well with strikers who showed tremendous gratitude to us for supporting these strikes. The Socialist Party will be on the picket lines in the near future to assist and support NHS workers in this battle for fair pay and against the privatisation of the NHS. Neither the government, nor the NHS management can hold back the anger that is being expressed amongst NHS staff at the minute.

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