On the wall of the Medical Library at Ninewells hospital in Dundee, there is a poem by Michael Rosen. It’s a fine tribute to all those who contribute to caring for us in hospital when we need it, whether medical staff or not, and I pass it every week when I attend as an outpatient. It’s not a visit I normally look forward to, but today was different…
Some 120 porters at Ninewells and the nearby Royal Victoria hospital have been taking a series of four-hour and one-day strikes – and I was proud to have in my pocket a message of support and cheque from my union branch.
The porters are on the lowest pay band in the NHS, Band 1, while their colleagues in hospitals elsewhere run by NHS Tayside are on Band 2. The anomaly dates back to 2004 when local management misinterpreted the guidance resulting from the NHS Agenda for Change. Through their union, Unite, the porters are now campaigning for regrading together with back pay amounting to at least £6 million.
The trust has failed to acknowledge that there is an issue here, and its response to the Unite action has been vicious. It spent £100,000 on a failed attempt to stop the strike through the courts, made punitive wages deductions. It suspended a porter for a post on Facebook and is now organising to undermine the strike. None of this has dented the porters’ resolve and as of 6am on Tuesday April 7th they are taking continuous strike action. There was already a 24-hour strike scheduled for Monday 6th so the all-out action effectively begins then.
Porters’ duties are being partially performed by “volunteers” from human resources and management – although I was told by other workers in the hospital that it can be quite difficult to find wheelchairs on strike days as they seem to go missing from the usual locations. Reports and photos in the local press of overflowing bins demonstrate that these “staff helpers”, some of whom are on six-figure salaries, are struggling to cope outside the rarefied atmosphere of their natural habitat on Level 10.
Support for the dispute has come from union branches in Dundee, across Tayside and in neighbouring Fife. The nursing staff have their own justified complaints over low pay and overwork, but those I spoke to were all sympathetic to the porters.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of their union. Unison’s lead organiser for health in Scotland, Matt McLaughlin, has written to Unison branches asking them “to think twice about lending support” because “the dispute, which is being promoted as a fair pay campaign, could have a negative impact on Unison recruitment and retention particularly amongst other Band 1 staff”.
Working class swing to SNP
McLaughlin failed in his attempt to win a seat for Labour in the 2011 Scottish parliament elections. He was defeated with a swing to the SNP of 7.4%. His result is typical of the way Labour strongholds in Scotland have fallen to the SNP in recent years. Nowhere is this process better demonstrated than in Dundee. In a city with a proud working class and labour movement history, the SNP now has a majority on the council, both MSPs and one of the two MPs.
As elsewhere in Scotland, local SNP membership has benefited from a recent influx of trade union members, attracted by the sort of social democratic policies that Labour has abandoned and by the rhetoric of greater social justice under a more devolved or independent Scotland. If we want indications of the extent to which the SNP is prepared to meet those aspirations – and of what influence the new trade union membership of the party can have – then the Dundee porters’ dispute is a good place to look.
The MSP for Dundee East is Shona Robison, who also happens to be cabinet secretary for health in the Scottish government. As one striker put it, “we haven’t heard hide nor hair of her” – although she was presented with a petition earlier this month and, according to Unite, has been “attempting to facilitate negotiations”.
Robison has also been invited to address a rally and march in support of the porters in Dundee on Saturday. Whether she has accepted the invitation is unknown. What is certain is that here is a group of workers in the front line of a fight for dignity at work. They deserve all the support we can give them.
March and rally: Saturday 4 April. Assemble 11:30am at the Unite offices, 110 Blackness Road, Dundee DD1 5PB, for a march to a rally starting at noon in City Square.
Support and solidarity: Send messages of support to Unite branch secretary John Boland at email@example.com. Send donations to Porters Strike Fund, Unite Office, 110 Blackness Road, Dundee DD1 5PB, with cheques made payable to Unite.
Facebook: Please “like” and share the Support Ninewells Porters page
This article first appeared on the International Socialism Scotland website.