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Ian Burge

Workers Defend Health Service

(May 1978)

From Militant, No. 406, 19 May 1978, p. 3.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Last Wednesday, many hundreds of hospital workers and local supporters marched on the District Management offices in Tower Hamlets, in protest against the local health service cuts and the threat to Bethnal Green Hospital. The mood, though good natured and friendly, was overwhelmingly one of anger at the proposed cuts and enthusiasm for a struggle of resistance.

Great demo

Hundreds of colourful banners flapped in the breeze as the three-pronged march converged in the Whitechapel Road. Cheers went up as contingents joined up from Bethnal Green, Mile End and Whitechapel hospitals. The long column then marched along the main road in front of the famous London Hospital, wound round the back, and passed the private wing which echoed back the chants “Private Medicine Out! – National Health Service In!”

The demonstration then assembled outside the management offices to hear speeches from the Campaign and from the trade unions. Groups of supporters from Hackney hospitals and from local industries such as the Watney Mann brewery and the Post Office also joined in.

The magnificent turn-out was in response to the call from the Keep Bethnal Green Hospital Open Campaign and the District Joint Shop Stewards’ Committee for a two-hour stoppage and demonstration. A previous demonstration called by the Campaign had not received much support but this time the solid trade union support made a world of difference. The Joint Shop Stewards’ Committee had asked for mass meetings of all unions to be held to discuss the situation and mobilise members. The results have demonstrated the correctness of this approach.

The simmering anger in many departments has been brought to the surface as the hospital workers realise what has been going on and was in store for them. The demonstration has proved they are not isolated and alone, that their stewards and unions are capable of preparing and leading them into battle. The mood on the march and rally showed that any caution on the part of some of the local hospital union leaders is unfounded. The workers themselves have shown they are ready to move into action to keep the hospitals open.

Given the right lead now from the stewards and branches, it will be possible to reverse the situation and to force management to carry out the demands of the health workers and the local population. The tremendous reserves of militancy must be brought into play, before it is too late. Hospital workers are seething at the way the NHS is being mismanaged and allowed to be run down.


Apart from the threatened closures there are a hundred and one other issues on the boil. There is the question of back pay owed to ancillary and works staff under an agreement going back 14 years now, with management stalling and dithering about, dragging the negotiations on and on.

There is the whole question of contract labour, increasingly brought in to do the work rightfully belonging to our own skilled men: the electricians, the engineers, the painters, the plumbers and the carpenters. It seems that the enormous overhead of management costs prices our own men off the market. It is claimed that contractors can do the jobs cheaper. Yet our own men often have to patch up the shoddy workmanship left by these contractors. Many workers believe that graft is the real reason for so much contracting.


Attempts have been made to ‘save’ on costs of standby duties, such as with the radiographers, which means reducing manning and payment reductions. There is the question of increasing centralisation in stores, laundries, catering, with consequent cuts in staff, loss of services at local level, and of course opportunities for further mismanagement on a grand scale.

Shortages of nursing staff, following the freeze on jobs in 1975, and cutbacks in training mean greater and unfair responsibility on the shoulders of training nurses, and generally harder work for all.

“Enough is enough!” was the feeling on the demonstration: “Let’s put a stop to all this!” Groups of workers are demanding we really put the screws on management. It is now possible that a serious struggle will develop to prevent closures. The JSSC must be thoroughly prepared to mobilise and build on the existing enthusiasm. The JSSC must be ready in a constructive way to lead the hospital workers into action.

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Last updated: 11 February 2017