Last week myself and colleagues took three days of industrial action over pay, terms and conditions. We want parity with directly employed NHS staff. From Wednesday 29 June through until Friday 01 July, I stood outside my place of work in Blackpool on all three days, on the picket line. It was my first experience of taking strike action and it was empowering.
To explain the detail a little, at present we are currently paid less for doing exactly the same job as our NHS colleagues, in the same workplace. The two-tier workforce created by our employer, OCS, has meant that for bank holidays, weekends and Christmases we have not received the same bonuses and conditions as the people we work alongside.
The example I will give, which became the spark in many ways leading to the recent industrial action was how we were treated for working over the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee weekend. Our colleagues employed by the NHS received a £50 bonus for working during the bank holiday, whilst we received an extra ten minute break and a chocolate biscuit. It was insulting, we were disgusted it represented the kind of unequal treatment that has left me and many of my colleagues feeling divided and separated from the rest of the team.
It hurts to see the difference between pay and conditions in comparison to what our friends and colleagues directly employed by the NHS receive. It creates an internal anger and resentment when they enjoy a better standard of living and better protections, especially in relation to sick pay. We do not begrudge any worker what they deserve, we only ask for fairness and equal treatment.
Those inequalities can be seen when talking about sick pay. If myself or any of my colleagues were unwell, we only receive Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) which is £99.35 per week. Again, this is not the same as our colleagues we work alongside who have those protections in place to receive a higher rate of sick pay. Surviving on £99 per week would drive many of us into poverty, just for being unfortunate enough to be sick. Working in a hospital means we work with a constant threat of higher risk of exposure to Covid-19. There have been cases where some colleagues have been going into work with potential symptoms because they cannot afford to be absent through sickness. They can’t afford not to.
We decided to take action.
We came together and spoke with colleagues, some were unsure about standing up and ‘making a fuss’ but we managed, with the help of our union, to gather enough support to suggest a ballot of the members. The prevailing message was that we have to stand together, stay united. There was a strong sense of feeling amongst colleagues, for many this was a huge decision, but we were hoping that would translate over to votes to take action. It did, we won the ballot and set the strike dates.
In the build up to the action, I had attended the TUC North West ‘Blackpool Demands Better’ rally with some of my colleagues. We were invited to speak to the room full of representatives and members of other unions and journalists, but most importantly sympathetic working people. I almost cried in outlining our message, it was very emotional. The response was overwhelming, a standing ovation and complete solidarity with offers of advice and support. We were ready.
In Blackburn and in Blackpool we took to our picket lines. We were again overwhelmed by the amount of support we received over the three days from colleagues, union representatives of both UNISON, our own union and other unions and of course the public. The sense of belonging to a wider family by being a trade union member is special. Our dispute was covered by national and local media, the TUC and on social media. With people coming to speak to us in person from all across the North West, it was just as we had hoped.
For now our dispute continues and there is still work to be done. Please do continue to share and support out activity as we fight for better pay, parity and conditions. The ultimate goal would be to be brought back in-house, to finally end outsourcing and have us all employed by the same people under the NHS. But for that, we will have to continue fighting.
I feel its right to have shared my experience of striking and am happy to offer my advice to others who may feel intimidated by the thought of taking action to defend themselves and their colleagues. My advice, as simple as it may seem, is just to do what we did. Organise by talking to your colleagues, ballot them and be prepared to take action for what you want. Be clear on why you are making a stand and stand up for what you are worth. You’ll get lots of support. Go out and do it.
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