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Ian Burge & Stephen Edwards

Health Cuts Put Workers Under Pressure

(January 1976)

From Militant, No. 339, 21 January 1976, p. 2.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Several weeks ago the Militant predicted that the health workers’ struggle would reach a new pitch as cuts sank deeper towards the end of the financial year.

Last Wednesday trouble flared at St Bartholomew’s, the City of London’s famous teaching hospital, as management took on ancillary staff in what union leaders see as an act of deliberate provocation, testing union support before further cuts are tried.


Porters in the casualty department have traditionally volunteered to collect the notes of newly admitted patients when no clerical staff were available to do the job. Recently, however, staff in all departments have been run down as management have not replaced staff who have retired or left. This is the policy known as “natural wastage”, whereby management expect the same duties to be done by lesser staff.

Eventually patients were being kept waiting for up to fifty minutes while notes, which are sometimes hard to find, were collected; and finally porters have refused to collect the notes. A letter from management was issued “instructing” portering staff to continue to undertake this extra duty, in defiance of agreements previously made with unions. When this was refused three porters were instantly suspended.

This was a direct challenge to the union as one of [the] three, Maurice Kolander, is a NUPE branch secretary. This also broke an elementary proviso against victimisation, in agreement with management that a full-time official of the union must be present whenever a member of staff who is an officer of the union is disciplined.

Also simmering in the background of the dispute is a ploy by management to improve new rotas on certain ancillary staffs, in order to cut out overtime. This could cut the earnings of those involved by £6–£12 per week.


Portering staff themselves are, life other hospital workers, overworked, not idle. In a typical night-shift last week the two men on duty in Casualty not only had to deal with some sixteen admissions, but were expected to deal with enquiries, act as messengers carrying blood smaples, X-ray plates and deal with an itinerant drunk who reappeared no less than four times throughout the night.

Drugs addicts, meths drinkers and every kind of “social casualty” are just as likely to turn up, to be dealt with as sympathetically as time, facilities and the other duties will allow. At the same time porters must be on standby for ambulances in case of an emergency!

A mass meeting voted unanimously for strike action without even emergency cover, such was the mood of anger. The blame for any suffering inflicted upon patients was placed squarely upon the shoulders of the management, and the withdrawal of all ancillary labour, together with the mounting of pickets to cut off supplies, was seen as the best way to bring the dispute to a speedy end, and management to its senses.


Support from other workers was immediate. Staff at the Hackney and Eastern hospitals and nearby St Marks walked out. Post Office workers refused to cross picket lines as did drivers delivering oxygen from BOC. The strike has been so solidly effective that management has withdrawn the suspensions and are willing to discuss with the unions. It seems likely that the cutting off of the supply of oxygen was crucial. Medical staff approached management and warned them that patients’ safety could not be guaranteed unless they stood down.

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