Cleaning and catering staff at four South London hospitals will be voting on whether or not to end their strike, having secured the promise of an inflation-busting pay rise from outsourcing giant ISS.
These hospital workers, organised by GMB, have stuck it out through several rounds of protracted strike action. And their boldness and resolve has finally paid off, with an offer from the employers that amounts to a thumping 17% pay rise.
Comrades from Socialist Appeal have visited the pickets on several occasions during this dispute. On every occasion, the mood amongst the strikers has been determined and courageous.
If ever there was proof that, when it comes to dealing with the bosses, militancy pays – quite literally – then this is it!
Following the ISS takeover of cleaning and catering services at South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, workers reported the emergence of a culture of bullying.
ISS management engages in abusive behaviour, shouting at staff regularly. One worker, Jack, told us about the aggressive attitude the workers get, saying that “they talk to us like they talk to someone smoking [in a non-smoking area]”.
Pay and working conditions are consistently worse for these outsourced workers – both compared to those on the Agenda for Change NHS contract, and to those employed by agencies, such as the strike-breaking Blue Arrow Group.
As Brian, a chef at Bethlem Royal Hospital, revealed, ISS was “willing to pay these [other] chefs £18 an hour, and they’re not willing to pay me £12 an hour, so I’m quite disgruntled about it”.
The only justification that ISS have offered for this treatment of their staff is to claim that there is no money available to improve pay.
While workers are struggling to survive, however, ISS made a profit of over £251 million last year. And CEO Jacob Aarup-Andersen has seen his annual salary increase to over £1.2 million.
Additionally, it was revealed during the strike that South London and Maudsley Trust has given ISS £500,000 since 2019 – none of which has reached the pockets of the staff.
Like every other capitalist employer, ISS seeks to maximise its profits. These are drawn entirely from the labour of its workers, at the expense of the latter’s wages and conditions.
When workers say ‘enough is enough’, however, things quickly change. If strikes remain firm and united, as the action at these hospitals did, then workers can turn the tables on the bosses.
The current crisis is not just limited to ISS. For decades, the NHS has suffered from privatisation and cuts to funding and jobs.
The outsourcing of services such as cleaning and catering have been part of these attacks from the very beginning, as the ruling class and its political representatives seek to make health workers and patients pay for the crisis of capitalism.
That ISS has been finally forced to throw in the towel shows that a militant struggle can deliver results.
But the ISS workers are not alone in struggling to improve their pay and conditions. Over the last year, across Britain, we have seen the highest level of industrial activity in decades. Workers have made it clear – they do not want to pay for the crisis of capitalism.
In the NHS alone, junior doctors in the BMA are continuing to strike, with a further four days of action now announced for August. And consultants and radiographers are also taking to the picket line.
Other outsourced hospital workers have also waged successful struggles recently. In East London last year, for example, staff employed by Serco won their demand to be brought back in-house, thanks to similarly militant strike action.
There is a clear recognition that these workers all share a common interest.
At Bethlem, passing doctors, ambulance drivers, and paramedics showed their support for the ISS strike. As Jack told us: “Many staff that work here, they support us. People from the NHS, they agree with us.’
The ISS workers, should they accept this deal, will have won a serious victory. This can – and should – be taken as inspiration by workers in the same situation elsewhere, whether in healthcare or any other sector.
While the strike wave that started last year is beginning to recede, for now, the problems that provoked it remain. This will therefore not be the last time that workers are forced to fight to defend their pay and conditions – far from it.
When new struggles break out, they should remember the lessons of the ISS dispute. Militancy pays. Unity is strength.
No doubt the bosses will dig their heels in deeper next time. They don’t want to be forced to give up any more of ‘their’ profits. This makes the question of coordinated action – between different groups of workers – all the more vital in order to achieve future breakthroughs.
On this basis, workers can take the fight not just to ISS or other individual employers, but to the Tory government that acts in their interests.
United action across the trade unions should be accompanied by demands for a sliding scale of wages should be introduced, linking pay rises to inflation.
And parasites like ISS should be kicked out of the NHS, with all outsourced services brought back in-house, as part of a fully-funded health service, under workers’ control and management.
We say: Kick capitalism out of our NHS!