Care UK workers in Doncaster, south Yorkshire, struck for two weeks from 29 July to 11 August. The strike was part of a long-running dispute to win the Living Wage.
Since the dispute began in September 2013, the support workers (120 looking after 140 people with learning disabilities in the Doncaster area) have struck 48 times, often for several days at a time. This is a highly unusual strike in a labour movement where most strikes are for one or two days only. Moreover the workers are expected to “extend and intensify” their action.
The determination of this group of workers is an inspiration to many others who are or who would like to fight poverty pay. It is especially important as wages in social care are being cut everywhere.
Care UK boss Chris Hindle has denounced the strikers’ demand as “simply unrealistic.” This is the boss at a private equity-backed company which each year takes more public money.
Jim Bell of Doncaster Unison said that four years of a pay freeze had made it “impossible” for workers to “meet the basic costs of living.” Strikers said that morale was “sky high” at the start of the latest strike.
Earlier this year, many strikers refused to sign new contracts that would have led to even worse wages. Workers are currently paid £7 per hour, 65p less than the minimum necessary for a decent standard of living.
Meanwhile, care workers in Barnet have voted overwhelmingly to take industrial action against a potential wage cut of over 9%.
Unison members took the vote after their employer, Your Choice Barnet (YCB), offered to lessen the scale of the wage cut-by only 1%! This would still mean a hefty 8.31% drop in wages, with no guarantee that further cuts won’t be coming round the corner.
YCB is owned by Barnet Council, and provides specialist social care to people with physical and learning difficulties. However, the council seriously underfunds the organisation.
Rather than providing the service with the necessary funds to provide care to all those who need it, the council insists on funding YCB as if it were a private company operating on a commercial basis, with funding granted only if a service user turns up to their appointment. If someone misses their appointment due to illness or a clash of commitments, YCB loses its funding to pay for it. Inevitably, those who pay the price for inevitable funding shortfall are the workers.
Both Doncaster and Barnet demonstrate what happens when health and social care services are marshalled into the discipline of the market.
The private equity firm which owns Care UK is interested, first and foremost, in delivering profits for its shareholders – the quality of care for vulnerable people, and the pay and conditions of the workers will always come a distant second. Likewise, while YCB in Barnet is fully owned by the council, it is expected to function as if it were a private company working to commission.
There is nothing inevitable or necessary about contracting out diminished, undermined services to private contractors. The enormous stores of wealth in society make a quality health service, free and accountable to the public, entirely possible. But in order to save and rebuild the NHS, the labour movement must organise to fight for it. In Yorkshire and Barnet, care workers are showing how that might be done.
•For more information, including on how to donate to the Doncaster strike fund, see the strikers’ Facebook page at bit.ly/care-uk-strike