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These exploited workers were laughed at and told that ‘unions do nothing’…

… but Croydon hospital workers have won — so can you! HELEN O’CONNOR tells the remarkable story of how they organised from scratch to win a groundbreaking 24% pay rise and a sick pay scheme

CROYDON hospital domestics and porters were desperate and downtrodden before they started their successful campaign for pay justice. 

G4S workers were left starving and unable to pay their bills, particularly if they incurred injuries at work or they were sick during the pandemic. 

G4S was paying them the minimum wage and they struggled even to get statutory sick pay also set at poverty level. 

A sense of demoralisation and hopelessness loomed large as many resigned themselves to their fate or left because they wrongly believed job conditions would be better elsewhere. 

After some discussion a small core of new GMB members started to reach the conclusion that they had no choice but to try to do something. 

They asked their colleagues to sign a letter demanding change and this is how the early seeds of the pay campaign started in the hospital. 

These workers were laughed at and told that “unions do nothing” and “GMB just wants to take your money” — but they ignored the cynics and persisted in encouraging their colleagues to join GMB and fight back. 

They had made a decision to step up, stop moaning, let go of their feelings of helplessness and start taking positive action together. They knew they had little to lose and they understood the utter futility of going alone to the company to raise their problems. 

Led by the reps, the members decided together in a union meeting that they wanted to fight to get the London living wage and sick pay. 

We encouraged a positive attitude by pointing to other successful campaigns where GMB members had won pay rises. We didn’t hold back in asking every single new member to contribute to their own campaign in some small way by speaking to colleagues, distributing leaflets etc. 

As the campaign gathered momentum, our members started to put their GMB membership cards onto their hospital ID because they could see the powerful impact this was having on their managers. 

We set a date for our first protest in January which garnered huge support from Keep Our NHS Public, Disabled People Against Cuts the local Labour Party, Save Lewisham A&E, UCU strikers, NHSSOS and many others and this gave the workers an enormous boost. 

The doctors’ local negotiating committee also got firmly behind our members and every clinical in the hospital received a GMB union letter detailing the dispute to counter the misinformation that was being put out by management in mass email campaigns. 

As support grew further inside the hospital, the workers realised that they were right and G4S was wrong and they grew in confidence.

The reps and members didn’t write anyone off and they spent hours engaging their colleagues and encouraging them to join the union. 

Their patient approach paid off and more workers joined the union during and after the protest. Soon we were well on our way to taking the battle against G4S to the next level. 

Workers who had held back and adopted a “wait and see approach” started to request to join GMB. Our members all helped each other along with the voting process and they succeeded in smashing the threshold on their legal strike ballot. 

Talks commenced with G4S which wrongly believed it could break solidarity and string the reps along endlessly, but we knew our members were ready and willing to strike for their rights. 

We had a clear mandate and we used this to concentrate the minds of management towards putting a solid offer on the table. We made no guarantees about any future offer, other than if it was reasonable we would ballot our members. 

We also resolved to oppose any requests to hold information back from our members and we refused to become spokespersons for G4S to ease tensions between the employer and the workforce.

The company tried to undermine GMB union at every single stage of the campaign but in meetings the reps and the members insisted that G4S go through their trade union in the proper way. 

They rejected the offer of an “employee forum” because they knew they already had a far more powerful voice through GMB that enabled them to hold G4S to account.  

They were not prepared to let go of their newly acquired power or let G4S break the solidarity they had worked so hard to build!  

As the G4S tops realised that the workers were serious and would not be divided, they moved fast to offer them a groundbreaking 24 per cent pay rise and a sick pay scheme. 

The company was forced to put the offer via GMB which the workers had insisted upon. 98 per cent of our members voted to accept the offer — and the rest is history. 

Our members in Croydon University Hospital gained far more than a life-changing pay offer. They gained confidence, belief in their power to change their own lives and now they have  an organised workplace too.  

Five new GMB reps have come up through the Croydon hospital pay justice struggle and they are already natural leaders who will further build GMB in the hospital. 

These reps are genuine spokespeople for our members and they are ready and willing to learn how to run their union branch in their interests and those of the members. 

If there is one thing the dispute has taught them, it is that commitment and hard work delivers results. They also know they cannot afford to become complacent. After all, it is far too easy for employers to pull apart even the strongest trade unions if reps and members fail to remain vigilant and active.

The Southern Region is now forging ahead with our plans to organise outsourced workers across the hospitals in south London so that they can all learn from each other and kick-start campaigns in their hospitals. 

We are often asked about the other groups of hospital workers, including the nurses and how the unions can help them. It’s important to make the point that no-one will come sweeping in from the outside to rescue workers and make work better. 

The answer always lies within ourselves and what we are prepared to do to build the strength of our own union in our workplace. No cut or restructure in any NHS trust is a done deal — and these can all be effectively opposed if NHS staff unite under the protection of their trade unions. 

Nothing is stopping staff like nurses, doctors and others coming together as a collective group to oppose cuts and privatisation and to agitate for better pay, terms and conditions. 

If the most oppressed groups of workers can operate collectively under the union and win, the same is possible for other groups of NHS staff. 

All NHS staff, regardless of their AFC grade, are being plunged into poverty because wages, terms and conditions have been deliberately driven down and the cost-of-living crisis will have a further devastating impact.  

The Croydon hospital G4S workers have shown how to get organised to win and it’s only a matter of time before other NHS workers follow their lead.

Helen O’Connor is GMB Southern regional organiser.

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