London NHS strikes: “We’re here to work – but not for free!”

by James Ivens, London Socialist Party

NHS workers in London have burst onto the streets in a big, coordinated pay strike. Refuse workers in two boroughs and housing maintenance in another two are hot on their heels.

Striking Unite members in East London have coordinated
rallies with BMA consultants. Photo: James Ivens

Staff, from cleaners to pathologists to nurses, in four London health trusts, walked out together on 13 September. The strike at one trust, Barts in east London, continues through to 22 September. They will be joined by consultants and junior doctors in the national BMA strike.

The unifying issue is the national pay offer. With the Tory government offering just 5% and inflation near twice that, general union Unite has coordinated eight London disputes for real increases.

Many local issues – some recent and some built up from years of cuts, privatisation and neglect – are in the mix too. There is a big mood of confidence, palpable on a hundreds-strong multi-trust march round the Royal London Hospital on 13 September.

Strikes get results

Striking ‘soft services’ workers at Barts Trust (porters, domestics, caterers and more), led by porter and Socialist Party member Len Hockey, are especially bold. They beat the bosses last year, winning through strike action being brought back into the NHS, and are ready to do it again.

Kitchen assistant and Unite rep Maria Talaia led the picket line at Whipps Cross Hospital. “We’re on strike to fight for our benefits. For example, the lump sum everyone else got, they didn’t pay us.

“We also need respect and dignity from management. We are the ones on the front line. During Covid, we are the ones who caught Covid.

“Inside, the managers have not provided proper food for patients. They have had a lot of complaints.

“The strike’s going very, very good. We went to the Royal London and had a massive demo – all the supervisors came out and saw. We are absolutely going to win.”

A shop steward at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Trust, Mirno Proppert, told us overtime pay is among the big issues. “I work in maintenance. There are lots of leaks because the structure is old and obsolete. I started being a rep very recently, just three months. We are here to work, but not to work for free! I normally work days but I have to work nights now too, because we need more people. They should pay a lot more when you’re on a night shift.”

Hugo Pierre reports from the Royal London in Whitechapel

A group of A&E nurses joined the picket lines. Some had joined Unite when the ballot result was announced, and others joined the day before the strike. They had been told by their former union, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), that they couldn’t strike.

One nurse said: “Hospital management stick to their staffing levels, which are too low considering how busy we get, but even then we are not fully staffed and have a lot of agency cover. The amount of money they give to the agencies could be used to increase our pay, which would help to retain staff. We do 12-hour shifts, but often work bank hours as well, to keep the department running.

“If we had more staff we could work safely with all our patients, which include major incident trauma, and high number of accidents from drug and alcohol dependency, because of all the homelessness and treatment centres locally.

“The RCN didn’t support us but this Unite strike has given us an opportunity to fight for better pay and proper staffing levels. We know more of our nursing colleagues will join us over the next week.”