Dozens of hospital cleaners and ward hosts in Tooting, London, are waging a struggle against employers Mitie for better pay and an end to outsourcing. The trade unions must unite and fight to transform the NHS with socialist policies.
Cleaners and ward hosts at St George’s Hospital Trust in Tooting, south London, are fighting against contractors Mitie to demand better pay and an end to outsourcing.
The outsourced hospital workers, organised in the GMB union, held an initial 72-hour strike on 30 May and 6-7 June.
Following this, an overwhelming majority of workers voted to continue the strike indefinitely until their demands were met. This led to seven days of strike action over the last week, from 20-26 June.
This is a shining example for the rest of the trade union movement to follow. Capitalist employers like Mitie will never give in to strike demands out of the kindness of their hearts. The only thing that will make them move is bold and militant class struggle.
St George’s Hospital Trust has contracted many duties to outsourcing giant Mitie, including catering, cleaning, and domestic work.
For outsourced workers, a major issue is the disparity between contracts. While those staff remaining in-house are employed on NHS ‘Agenda For Change’ contracts, those employed by Mitie operate under far more precarious terms and conditions. Until recently, those working on Mitie’s contract were not even entitled to sick pay.
The final straw for the workers was Mitie’s decision earlier this year to extend its pay cycle from five to six weeks, while paying workers for only four of those weeks. Additionally, the initial creation of the cycle saw a delay in payments from the end of April to mid-May.
At the height of the cost-of-living crisis, with inflation at 9%, to deny pay to workers means – for many – denying them the ability to survive. Disgracefully, Mitie attempted to defend its decision by blaming St George’s Trust, stating that the new contract had nothing to do with them!
The Trust, however, is also failing to meet the needs of its workers. Like Mitie, it has attempted to distance itself from the dispute, claiming that the question of pay is purely an internal issue between the company and its employees.
While its workers struggle to pay their bills, Mitie has continued to see strong profits throughout this crisis. The company’s CEO, Phil Bentley, has taken home £900,000 a year since his appointment in 2016. And the company made whopping profits of £128 million in 2021-2022, an increase of 286% compared with the previous year.
Furthermore, Mitie’s workers risked their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that those infected could be treated, only to receive nothing in return. One worker, Trevor, who spoke to Socialist Appeal supporters on the picket lines, told us:
“We are the ones who are putting our whole lives at risk doing the work…We went through the whole pandemic for the last year, and nobody’s come and acknowledged us about it. Not even a thank you for what we’ve been through.”
Mitie’s attacks on pay and conditions are motivated by nothing more than the desire to maximise the company’s profits.
— Helen O’Connor ? (@HelenOConnorNHS) June 26, 2022
To prevent a strike from taking place, Mitie engaged in what GMB regional organiser Helen O’Connor referred to as “some of the worst anti-trade union intimidation I’ve ever seen”.
Mitie reportedly threatened to sack workers who voted in the GMB’s ballot, and distorted the nature of the negotiations when speaking to workers.
At a meeting with Mitie, the union’s local branch secretary was threatened with ejection from the room if he spoke up. Despite these despicable threats, the ballot saw 96.6% of members vote to strike on a 56.8% turnout, smashing through the scandalous Tory anti-trade union laws.
Socialist Appeal supporters have visited the picket lines to show solidarity. The mood amongst the strikers has been militant and defiant, as reflected in the main chants of: “Enough is enough! Mitie out!”
We have been informed that, in order to divide the workforce, Mitie has scandalously offered double-rate pay to workers who cross the picket line.
We discussed with a number of workers at the picket lines. All showed a clear understanding that they can only rely on themselves to secure their interests. One worker, Abdi, told us:
“We, together with our GMB members, we don’t keep quiet. We have to raise what’s going on. Because if you don’t talk, no one will talk to you. We will go ahead and bring change to our conditions, as no one else will do it. I hope there are good people out there, who will help us to reach our goal.”
Another, Joseph, expressed a desire for a united struggle amongst all hospital staff:
“Some people feel that they are not affected, so some of them go in and work. Some of us are here, as you can see, but the point is that if we are all affected, we all have to stick together.
“That is why we need us to be on one contract, so that at the end of the day, if anything happens, we all have to come together to fight for it, and not be divided, because of the two tiers of contract that exist.”
The crisis of outsourcing is not just limited to Mitie. The NHS has been under attack from cuts and privatisation for decades, as the ruling class and its political representatives seek to make health workers and patients pay for the crisis of capitalism, in order to preserve their profits.
Whilst NHS services decline, and healthcare staff face a drastic fall in wages and conditions, companies like Mitie profit from outsourced contracts. Capitalism is killing the NHS.
The Mitie workers’ strike is an inspiration to workers everywhere. Similarly, the Tooting strikers can look to other recent victories to further galvanise their struggle – such as the victory of outsourced workers at three East London hospitals against Serco earlier this year.
After a militant two-week strike, these hospital workers succeeded in bringing their services back in-house with Barts Health NHS Trust.
As expressed by workers on the St George’s picket line, victory can only come with a united struggle by all health workers. This would be an excellent first step.
Such a movement should not just encompass staff such as cleaners and porters, however, but also doctors and nurses, whose working conditions and pay have also been steadily eroded over the past few decades.
Trade unions such as the GMB, Unison, and Unite, as well as the Royal College of Nurses and the British Medical Association, should link all these struggles together – across the NHS, and across the public sector more widely – to wage a united fight to improve pay and conditions for all workers.
— Liz Martin ? #ToriesOut #JoinaUnion ✊ (@LizMartinLabour) June 25, 2022
This should be part of a mass campaign of coordinated action by the whole trade union movement – to build for a one-day public sector strike, and to kick out the Tories.
Only a united and militant struggle can topple the Tory government, expropriate the capitalists they represent, and end the scandal of outsourcing once and for all.