Forcing the politicians to listen: Social work staff and NHS porters in Glasgow and Dundee on two-month long strikes


CommonSpace speaks to workers on strike in two different disputes in Glasgow and Dundee with a lot in common

IF ever two strikes were similar, it was these two: both all-out strikes, both lasting over eight weeks, both over pay grading, both trying to force politicians to listen and take their concerns seriously as public-sector workers.

Little attention in the national media has been paid to the striking homeless case workers in Glasgow City Council and the striking NHS porters in Dundee, but their long period on all-out strike appears to be beginning to make their respective politicians pay attention.

In Dundee, Graham Nelson, a shop steward for Unite and a porter at Ninewells hospital, said after eight weeks on strike and a protest last week outside the Health Secretary Shona Robison’s constituency office, he thinks that the tide is finally turning in their favour.

Nelson tells CommonSpace: “Sixty-four of us are going up to the Scottish Parliament tomorrow [28 May], Jenny Marra from Labour will be asking a question at First Minister’s Questions, and we’ve been told that Robison is going to get us round a table so we can have a meeting and sort this out.

“All of it could have been sorted with one phone call from Robison weeks ago to NHS Tayside management – we have had four or five meetings with them but it has always broken down. Hopefully it can get sorted now.”

Nelson says that the porters have been fighting to be put up to the band 2 pay grade for 10 years, and have been vindicated by a series of panels stating that they should be band 2, but have been repeatedly fobbed off.

“Three panels in a row said porters should be band 2, then they had a fourth panel where one person on it said it shouldn’t be band 2, and that’s the basis they’ve used to keep us on band 1,” he explains.

Band 2 would work out at PS48 a week more for every porter, and Nelson says that this is a serious amount of money for porters, but the strike has also become more than just a pay dispute – they’re also fighting to get temporary workers proper contracts.

“We’ve had lots of porters come in on zero-hours contracts, and on 10 May their contracts were up. But 13 of those workers have stayed in the union and have been part of the strike from the start, so we’re saying that they should all get permanent contracts,” Nelson says.

Health Secretary Shona Robison told CommonSpace that the Scottish Terms and Conditions Committee (STAC) is now involved and “will bring a new and independent perspective to the table.”

She added: “Resolving this dispute will require compromise on both sides and quickly finding a solution to this situation is in the best interests of patients at NHS Tayside.

“I’m pleased to see that both Unite and NHS Tayside have now agreed to the terms of the review and that both parties will meet with STAC Co-Chairs as part of that process. This is positive progress, and I would encourage both parties to engage fully in this process.”

“We’ve been told that Robison is going to get us round a table so we can have a meeting and sort this out.” Graham Nelson, striking NHS porter

In Glasgow, homeless case workers have been on all-out strike for over nine weeks with no end in sight, but the council bosses have shifted position from trying to entirely ignore the workers when the strike began, to accepting they have to at least get round the table and negotiate.

Stuart Graham, one of the Unison shop stewards and homeless case workers in the south-side of the city, told CommonSpace that following a meeting last week when the council “wasn’t bringing anything to the table”, council bosses announced there will be another meeting next Monday [1 June] at which the workers will be presented with a “written proposal”.

The union argues that the workers get paid a grade lower than other social work case workers despite doing a job with the same skills and dealing with many of the same issues. The anomaly comes from the fact that homeless case workers were previously part of the housing department before being transferred to social work.

Eighty-four per cent of workers voted in favour of the strike, on a 64 per cent turnout, and Graham says that the strike is as “solid” now as when it began.

“The lack of engagement from the council for months now has done nothing but concretise the strike – we know that it will have all been for nothing now if we don’t keep going,” he adds.

The council responded to the strike by paying for hotels for homeless people to stay in, an expense the strikers say was well above what it would cost to change their pay grade.

Since then, the union has heard allegations of workers in the voluntary and third sectors being used to do the work of homeless case workers since 13 May, which would be illegal strike breaking. The union has sent letters to the relevant organisations warning them that they may be engaging in strike-breaking unknowingly. The council denies the allegation.

Graham says that the Glasgow City Unison branch has been so furious by the council’s lack of engagement that it has sent a letter to Unison nationally asking the union to cut funding to the Labour council.

A spokesperson for Glasgow City Council told CommonSpace: “We have agreed to meet again with the Unison next week and we look forward to focusing on the issue that has led to Unison taking industrial action

“A review of the homelessness casework service has been worked on and this may offer a way forward.

“The purpose of the review is to provide a robust business case for any changes to the homelessness service and we are hopeful it will provide the basis for a constructive discussion.”

“We can see the echoes in one another’s struggles. Hopefully it can inspire other workers to not be afraid, and take this sort of action.” Stuart Graham, striking homeless case worker

The two disputes have much in common, something not lost on both sets of workers. The ninewells porters sent through a bus to Glasgow in support of the homeless case workers, and the case workers are set to reciprocate the solidarity by sending a contingent through to Holyrood to support the porters.

“We can see the echoes in one another’s struggles,” Graham says. “Hopefully it can inspire other workers to not be afraid, and take this sort of action.”

The issues involved are not just low pay, but discriminatory, unfair low pay, due to workers not being graded what they feel they are owed. It’s likely that many more workers across Scotland feel the same way in the current economic climate.

Picture courtesy of CommonSpace