As the Mitie GMB members embark on their fourth day of strike action at St George’s Hospital, it’s important to reflect on the dispute so far. Every single struggle delivers lessons that are important for our class.
This is a relatively small dispute, localised in one South London hospital. But the way these migrant workers are treated is commonplace right across the NHS. The difference is that these workers want to fight back, and GMB is supporting them. Other groups of workers are moving into action too, including RMT, CWU, and PCS members who are not prepared to end up on poverty pay as big business owners rake in eye-watering profits.
Nothing happens in isolation, and all working-class people are facing an erosion of our living standards accelerating on a scale not seen in recent history. The sacking of the P&O seafarers has led to workers being drafted in on just over £3 an hour. The flimsy excuse for this behaviour—that the living wage doesn’t cover seafarers—is being used to create new layers of super-exploited labour.
The Mitie workers cannot rely on wages owed being paid, and many even struggle to get the paltry statutory sick payment. They have had enough of the unfairness of the two-tier workforce. The old, the sick, and the vulnerable are toiling to swell the profits of Mitie.
This dispute exposes the hidden impact of the privatisation of the NHS on patients, too. Cuts to staffing mean that areas are not being cleaned properly, which poses a cross-infection risk. Sanitation and nutrition are vital in hospitals when people are at their most vulnerable, and private companies undermine these factors, alongside the terms and conditions of the workforce, in order to increase the profit margin. That’s why the demand ‘Mitie Out’ is just as important for patients as it is for workers.
The bosses, meanwhile, are coordinated. They are talking to each other and sharing tactics to exploit workers and break strikes. The government supports them, and legislation is likely to come down the line that will further shore-up our anti-strike laws, already the most repressive in the western world. All this means that it is more important than ever before that the working class coordinate properly, right across the movement.
Everyone has a role to play in a strike, even if you are not a striker yourself. The Mitie strikers have enjoyed support from the other major trade unions—the RMT, Unite and Unite community, the RCN, and PCS, to name a few—and they are also getting support from the social movements like the People’s Assembly. This support has been key to building confidence and keeping the dispute going.
The Mitie workers are demanding NHS contracts for everyone, which are vital to their own survival, but which will mean the end of Mitie in St George’s Hospital. As a result, senior Mitie managers and directors are fighting hard to break the will of the workers to strike. Offers of cash and promotions are very tempting for workers who have so little. Because of the strike, workers are now getting care and attention from managers that they have never had before—the type of special attention that will cease as soon as the strike is over.
Meanwhile, managers are covering the areas with scab labour, lying about negotiations with GMB, stopping overtime for strikers, and isolating reps. One worker said he was circled multiple times by a director, who then sat down beside him and said nothing.
The stakes are high for the workers who are prepared to fight, but those who won’t fight will be first in the line to suffer the most. There are always risks involved in going into dispute with the bosses. Trade unionists must always be honest about that, because the members will work it out for themselves anyway. The best of them, the most conscious, will fight. New young workers’ leaders will emerge, as has happened in St George’s already. These new reps will be battle-hardened and learn the skills to carry the struggle forward right into the future.
What the Mitie struggle has clearly exposed is that NHS trust tops fully support the exploitation of the lowest-paid workers. They have failed to meet with GMB even once, while strikes impact the services in the hospital. All the NHS diversity and inclusion policies are exposed as a complete sham by outsourcing, and the sight of the large numbers of migrant workers on strike outside St George’s Hospital.
The bosses will always redouble their efforts against strikers and be supported by this government and the right-wing press in doing so. They expect our class to enable them to enrich themselves further, no matter what the prevailing conditions are.
Workers everywhere need an inflation-busting pay rise, and the capitalist class know it. Those workers are only getting significant pay rises where they are prepared to dig in and fight hard to achieve them.
The Mitie strikers are fighting for themselves, their kids, the future of the NHS, the future of secure and stable work. Any of us are just two or three traumas away from having to rely on low-paid work. That is why all workers must step up and fight back, just like the Mitie GMB members, and why we must build coordinated and sustained resistance to the assaults on our class. We must come together across the movement to make common demands on behalf of all workers and our class. The time is right. It’s now or never.