Scotland: Dundee porters’ victory proves strike action can deliver

After 13 weeks of all-out strike action the 117 Dundee hospital porters have won an inspiring victory

After 13 weeks of all-out strike action the 117 Dundee hospital porters have won an inspiring victory in their long-running battle with NHS Tayside bosses. A series of concessions forced from management have resulted in a regrading and immediate pay rises of between 6-7% for the porters at Ninewells and Royal Victoria hospitals. The majority of the workers will also see year-on-year rises as they work their way to the top of the new pay band resulting in, according to Unite, an overall 20% wage increase by 2018. In addition, the porters also won an increase in the number of full-time, permanent portering jobs at the two hospitals and a cash payment for every striker of £1,800.

Their victory is one for determined and resolute working-class action and militant trade unionism. It is also a defiant challenge to the so-called “partnership working” model advocated by right-wing trade union leaders in the NHS. They have also set a new standard for how a fighting union should conduct itself in the future. Indeed the porters action led the NHS Tayside chief executive to exclaim that Unite was “acting contrary to what we would consider to be the normal actions of a reasonable trade union.” The porters strike has forged “a new normal” for how trade unions should conduct themselves in defence of workers rights and terms and conditions in the NHS.

The strike of the Unite porters also had a major impact on the other unions in the hospitals whose right-wing leaders back partnership working. A Scottish Unison official had written to local Unison branches at the start of the action urging them to “think twice before supporting the strike.” However, this criminal advice was ignored by the majority of Unison members and branches who gave the porters their 100% backing. Many Unison bureaucrats were openly hoping for the defeat of a strike that they saw as a threat to their modus operandi of cosy partnership working that seeks at all costs to avoid industrial action.

Against the backdrop of savage austerity, wage caps and job losses in the public sector this win is all the more significant. It proves that striking can deliver results for the working class and force the bosses and the austerity-implementing politicians to retreat.

As Graham Nelson, a senior Unite shop steward for the porters, explained; “If 117 men and women in Dundee can have the impact we have had, imagine what could be achieved if the entire trade union movement took action together in a coordinated campaign of industrial action – a general strike – against austerity.”

four months of action

The porters industrial action campaign lasted for four months, three months of which was an all-out strike. Their central case was that the majority of them had been wrongly and unfairly placed on a band 1 grading under the NHS Agenda for Change (AfC) procedure. The key demand of the workers was for a band 2 grading for all and compensation for years of underpayment. This was fiercely resisted by NHS Tayside’s executives who had treated the porters with nothing short of contempt. Their arrogance contributed to the determination of the workforce to fight this to the end.

After four weeks of partial strike action a decision was made in early April to move to an all-out strike. Management’s response was not to negotiate but was instead to try and “tough it out” by bringing in “volunteers”, very often band 7 and above, to cover the porters jobs. But it was clear from early on that this was not a viable strategy when faced with a prolonged all-out strike. Indeed regular reports emerged from inside Ninewells hospital, including photographs of refuse piling up and non-emergency procedures being cancelled, which exposed the major impact the strike was having.

The scale of the solidarity from NHS workers and the wider working class of Dundee and beyond was crucial. Regular weekly and monthly collections by NHS staff were organised in support of the strikers. Thousands of pounds was donated in the buckets at the picket lines by patients, visitors and workers alike. Trade union solidarity from across Scotland and the UK also brought in large amounts of money and messages of support. The porters Facebook page was reaching tens of thousands of people with regular updates on the strike.

The erection of the large gazebo at Ninewells – equipped with a three piece suite, kitchen and burning brasier for all culinary requirements – as well as the many strike banners on display were a powerful statement of intent.

Political campaign

Because the strike was ongoing in the run-up to the Westminster general election in May the porters were able to test out the mettle of the competing political parties. Despite their anti-austerity rhetoric not once did a single SNP candidate, councillor, MSP or MP attend the picket line or make a statement in support of the strike action. In contrast the role played by Socialist Party Scotland members and TUSC supporters resulted in a majority of the porters voting for TUSC in the election. As Ronnie Heeney, senior shop steward for Unite, explained: “Not one Labour, SNP or any other candidate apart from TUSC have taken the time and effort to visit our picket lines. Why would I support someone who can’t show any support for me. My X went proudly in the TUSC box.”

This work of socialists encouraged the porters to start applying their own political pressure through protests at the Scottish parliament and the local offices of the SNP and the Scottish government’s health minister, who is a local MSP.

The role of leadership, as in all struggles, was crucial. The contribution made by the senior shop stewards Graham Nelson and Ronnie Heeney was vital, along with the other reps and strike activists. They played a key role in ensuring morale was maintained, drawing up strategy and tactics as well as ensuring that the porters and their stewards took all the key decisions affecting the strike action.

The regular contact and support given by the porters, and vice versa, to the Glasgow caseworkers – also on all-out strike – was also important. Graham Nelson also spoke at the recent Scottish TUSC conference and pledged his continued backing for TUSC in building a real anti-austerity political alternative for the working class.

Facing the solidity and determination of the strike, management offered an “independent” review of the porters case that they had been wrongly banded under AfC. The Scottish Terms and Conditions committee (STAC) took evidence taken from management and the trade union. Its report largely backed management, not surprisingly, given it was a partnership body. Crucially, the porters and Unite made it clear that they would not be bound by the decisions of the STAC report and the strike would continue until a just offer was made. Without doubt, NHS Tayside had hoped that the porters would have ended their action after STAC reported. The HR director at NHS Tayside, George Doherty, issued a bulletin to all Ninewells staff in the hours following the STAC report claiming that management had won their case. All that was needed, he crudely asserted, was to negotiate the terms of the union’s surrender and the “return to work of the porters.”

What was won

However, the porters refused to backdown and held firm. Management were left with no choice but to offer immediate talks as the strike entered its 12th week. The union had drawn up three main elements to their demands. Firstly, was the demand that all porters should be on a band 2. In a desperate attempt to end the action the management side accepted this and also conceded that all porters would go up two spinal points on the band, resulting in an immediate 6-7% pay increase. Before the strike the majority of porters were stuck at the top of band 1, with no prospect of any real wage rises. For the next three years the big majority of the porters will also get annual increment rises three to four times the rate of inflation.

The second key demand of the union was that the 14 temporary porters on 6 month contracts (their jobs ended in early May but 13 of them heroically came out on strike and solidly supported it throughout) be given full-time permanent jobs. This was also conceded by NHS Tayside. The permanent portering staff at Ninewells and RVH will now increase by almost 14% as a result of this breakthrough.

The big sticking point was a cash payment for compensation for the porters. During the talks management claimed they were being blocked from making a payment “at a Scottish level”. The leading shop stewards said this was unacceptable and the porters immediately organising a protest at SNP health minister Shona Robison’s offices in Dundee demanding answers and made it clear they would organise a daily protest until this issue was resolved.

As the strike entered week 13 with another protest at Shona Robison’s offices, management phoned the union to ask “what will it take to end the strike?” The shop stewards and the local Unite full-time official agreed to call for an amount that would take account of the loss of pay during the strike, for compensation for loss of holiday entitlement and other issues. An offer of £1,800 per worker was made. This was less of a cash payment than some of the strikers had hoped for when the strike began. But the STAC report had effectively “cleared” management of wrongly banding the porters and it meant that they were resisting the idea of any compensation being required.

Following a mass meeting at which the workers voted by 86 to 11 to accept the offer, it was agreed to end the strike and return to work.

United and determined

The strike has ended with major steps forward for the porters. Perhaps the greatest of all is the hugely increased strength and cohesion that was forged during this struggle. As one of the strikers, Mark Gilligan, told us: “We’re a hundred times stronger as a group than when we started our strike action. One thing that is clear is we’ll be going back more united and determined than even before. I would guess that’s a nightmare scenario for management. They’ll get away with nothing from now on.” Indeed this victory will also inspire other NHS workers facing similar battles on regrading and pay and conditions.

The porters’ shop stewards commented following the ending of the dispute: “We as stewards would like to congratulate all of our striking porters for the commitment to our cause. Each and every one of you have behaved in an exceptional manner and with the utmost dignity throughout this dispute, which at times has seen losses and hardship along the way. Be proud as working class people to have taken a stand and fought for what you believe you are worth. It’s been a pleasure to have been your representatives through all of this. We have taken our plight around Scotland and have had great backing from everyone. We thank the public and all of our supporters on the Facebook page and anyone who has donated. You have kept our spirits high in times of need with amazing feed back, comments and support.”

The stewards also described the role of Socialist Party Scotland members as an “inspiration” to them, which is humbling. However, we would also say that the porters have been an inspiration to socialists and working-class people in Dundee and beyond. A real and living testimony to the unbreakable will of the working class to fight to change their lives for the better.

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July 2015