England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

The longest strike in NHS history

By David Jones, UNISON National Executive Council member (personal capacity) based in Wirral

Clinical Support Workers (CSWs) in Wirral University Teaching Hospital Trust are currently engaged in the longest strike action in the history of the NHS. These low paid workers have taken 62 days of strike action in support of their campaign for fair pay. Forced into a re-ballot by the Tories anti-trade union legislation, they have just reported an astounding endorsement of their action. A turnout of 71% saw 97% of workers vote to continue striking.

Clinical Support Workers are essential to the running of the hospitals (Clatterbridge and Arrowe Park), and ensuring excellent standards of patient care. Yet as Band 2 workers,  they are some of the lowest paid in the NHS. The duties they carry out clearly meet the criteria for a higher banding, yet management at the Trust have resisted.

Management intransigence

Faced with the intransigent refusal of management to resolve this issue, UNISON  members had no option but to ballot for strike action. Following a successful ballot, the strike began in August. In November, after 13 days of strike action, it appeared there was a breakthrough. Management agreed to backdate the regrading until 2018 as demanded. However it soon became apparent that the deal was not what it seemed. The criteria proposed by management meant that, whilst many would get regraded backdated five years, hundreds would miss out. This is a classic, if lowly tactic by management to try and divide the workforce.

However, they failed spectacularly, with the workers showing tremendous unity. Pickets lines are literally hundreds strong everytime – come sun, snow or rain. Hundreds of CSWs have joined UNISON during the dispute, and membership has grown massively to over 90%. Chief Executive of the NHS Trust, Janelle Holmes, who saw her pay rise by 26% to £290,000, has seen her union busting techniques fail.

Strike Committee

Crucially, this dispute is in the hands of the workers themselves. There has been excellent support from UNISON Regional Officers and branch reps, but key to the dispute has been the Strike Committee involving at least 14 Clinical Support Workers.. It is the workers whose voice is being heard in negotiations, and it is the workers escalating the action. Starting out with single day blocks, they have increased the frequency so that the majority of January was strike days

This strike is significant, not just for the workers in Wirral – their determination to win is an example to all. But it also shows how local disputes can have a galvanising effect. Beating the Tory anti-union threshold in national ballots of hundreds of thousands can be difficult, but we can organise locally to challenge poor pay and conditions showing the potential to smash the thresholds in national ballots. And when workers themselves are at the forefront of disputes, they show a desire and creativity that can drive strikes forwards. 

As we write, we await the announcement of further strike days. However we urge all socialists and trade unionists to build solidarity with this significant dispute. 

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