Hospital strikes

(20/12/10) Striking hospital support staff in Buckinghamshire and Southampton have held marches and rallies to publicise their dispute with private contractors Compass Medirest over the multinational’s refusal to implement the Agenda for Change agreement.

In Buckinghamshire 150 UNISON domestics, porters and catering staff working at Amersham and Wycombe hospitals held a two-day strike on 15 and 16 December over Medirest’s refusal to pay sick pay, overtime or unsocial hours payments.

On the same days 240 UNISON domestic staff at Southampton General Hospital walked out over their claim for sick pay, only recently introduced, to be backdated to before May 2010, and for back pay and improved payment for night time and weekend working.

UNISON maintains that both trusts have received the money from government to implement Agenda for Change terms and conditions but have failed to pass it on to Compass Medirest support staff.

On 16 December over 100 members from Amersham and Wycombe hospitals braved the cold and drizzle to march from the picket line at Wycombe Hospital to the town’s busy shopping centre.

“Sick pay is not too much to ask, we’re not living in the 19th century,” UNISON assistant general secretary Roger Mackenzie told the rally. “But this is not just about pay, it is about dignity and respect, and your action shows that people will stand up and go on strike if necessary.”

UNISON organiser Liza Nicklin congratulated the strikers: “I am so proud. You have been strong and have stood up for your rights. The public response has been amazing because they understand why you are on strike.”

National officer Sian Davies told the marchers that an attack on one section of NHS staff was an attack on all.

UNISON Bucks Health branch secretary Steve Bell said that messages of support and solidarity had come in from all over the country and hospital staff and visitors had donated £600 to the hardship fund.

“There is widespread recognition of the valuable work that these NHS staff perform and all hope that the trust and Medirest will now agree to the sick pay and other conditions that the workers have been denied over the last four years.”

Members were in good spirits and determined to win their campaign. “I earn £6.35 an hour and it’s not easy to survive on that sort of money,” said Victor Angyal, who has worked for over five years as an x-ray department porter.

Domestic cleaner Gosla, who did not wish to give her full name, said: “We need to strike because we don’t have sick pay, and get no overtime pay.” Catering assistant Jess nodded her agreement and added: “I still live at home with my parents but if I lived elsewhere I wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

The good-natured but spirited march then headed to the headquarters of the PCT where loud chants of “We want our sick pay”, accompanied by the blaring of klaxons and horns, brought staff to the windows to wave their support.

But members in Southampton got a different reaction from the other side of the window when they marched to their hospital trust building – they forced a management retreat. UNISON rep Jo Spears said: “We could see Mark Hackett, the trust chief executive, with some other people in a ground floor room. We rallied outside shouting ‘Give us your money!’ and they soon abandoned their meeting and moved off somewhere else.”

Over 200 members joined the march and rally at the hospital on 16 December.

“We marched to the trust building because the hospital is a long way from the city centre,” said Jo. “One of our domestics started a petition and we soon had five pages of signatures from patients, visitors and staff going in and of the hospital, as well as from ambulance crews and delivery drivers, while passing fire engines tooted their support.

“It was a brilliant turnout and we’ve had a really good reception from the public. It’s been a fantastic day.”

The dispute was featured on local BBC TV programme South Today who interviewed Jo and regional secretary Andy Straker.