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Proletarian issue 79 (August 2017)
Industry matters: summer strike wave
Driver-only operation

In July the rail workers’ union RMT had its members out on strike in three train franchises over the long-running battle against the extension of driver-only operation (DOO).

On 10 July union members on Southern Rail and Mersey Rail struck for 24 hours, whilst members on Northern Rail were concluding their third day of strike action. Merseyrail workers planned further strike action for 23 July.

The union argues that DOO is unsafe, will limit access for disabled travellers and will result in job losses, and attributes company bosses’ continuing pig-headedness over the issue to the hidden hand of transport secretary Chris Grayling.


Hospital revolt

Four London hospitals, Mile End, the Royal London, St Bartholomew’s and Whipps Cross, all come under the Barts Health NHS trust. Last year the trust awarded its so-called ‘soft’ services – ie, cleaners, porters, guards and the like – to Serco, one of the parasites that has been worming its way into the NHS. (Serco made £82m last year sponging off the NHS, paying its CEO over £1m.)

To celebrate having bagged the contract, Serco kicked off by scrapping paid tea breaks for cleaners at the Royal London. This triggered an instant walk out by 150 cleaners, who refused to return unless the breaks were re-established. After two days Serco caved in.

But it was not just the tea breaks incident that upset the low-paid and overworked employees of Serco. Cleaners interviewed reported: “many cleaners at Barts are working two or three jobs. Some clean consecutively: going to one hospital at 7.00am, working an eight-hour shift, getting a bus to a second hospital, and starting again at 5.00pm.”

Payslips from Serco no longer indicate the rate per hour, making it harder to spot when workers are getting ripped off. Others report that the increasing workload is resulting in workplace injuries. (See Two jobs just to eat: that’s life for workers in low-wage Britain by Frances Ryan, Guardian, 6 July 2017)

Then in June, after a build-up of frustrations over low pay, poor conditions, overwork and management bullying, Unite the Union balloted the cleaners, porters and guards for strike action in pursuit of a 30 pence hourly pay rise. The response was galvanising: 99 percent of workers who took part voted to strike.

The 700 workers from the four hospitals that were involved organised to down tools on 4 July for a three-day strike, followed by another seven days from 11 July, and then a two week-long stoppage from 25 July, with further action in August and September should this prove necessary.

Now that these superexploited workers are showing some fight, a spokesperson for the Barts Health trust has hastened to shrug off any responsibility for the situation, eager to stress how “We have been working closely with both sides to find a resolution to this dispute.” (Serco staff at Barts Health NHS trust strike over pay dispute by Katie Scott, Employee Benefits website, 5 July 2017)

The reality is that the fat cats sitting on hospital trusts and the no-less fat cats sitting on the boards of directors of the like of Serco are completely interchangeable.


Maintenance workers strike

Tenants living in the north of Manchester in social housing ‘managed’ by Northwards housing association on behalf of Manchester city council will be stuffed if they need any repairs done this summer.

Responsibility for effecting repairs to these properties rests neither with the council nor the housing association but with a private contractor called Mears via a joint venture company called Manchester Working. But right now nobody at all is taking responsibility for maintaining this swathe of ‘social’ housing.

Mears is so hell-bent on maximising its profits and cheapening its services that it has chosen a confrontation with its own workers rather than addressing the injustice of (a) workers getting paid up to £3,500 less a year than others for undertaking the same work, (b) the promotion of a sacker’s charter (sorry, ‘productivity procedure’), and (c) the imposition of a new contract with increased hours.

Because Mears and Manchester Working both refuse to enter into negotiations on any of this with Unite, the workforce of 170+ has been driven to strike four weeks’ straight, all the way through from 8 July to 4 August.

Unite’s Andy Fisher noted: “Inevitably the escalation in action is going to have serious consequences for tenants; while this will lead to a delay in repairs and maintenance work I hope that they recognise that this is entirely the making of Mears.” (See NSSN bulletin 347, July 2017)
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