Hospital employees started a 48-hour strike this morning in protest at a controversial employment move and have spoken of their fears for the NHS.
Picket lines were being operated today at Wigan Infirmary and Wrightington Hospital between 6am and 10pm and at Leigh Infirmary from 6am until 7pm. Protests are also taking place this afternoon outside the Thomas Linacre Centre.
The demonstrations are expected to be held again at the same times tomorrow.
Two employees who would be affected by a planned transfer to subsidiary firm WWL Solutions have revealed why they chose to take industrial action.
Around 900 estates and facilities employees, including porters, switchboard operators, caterers and cleaners, face being moved to the wholly-owned firm.
Campaigners and trade unions have fiercely resisted the move, saying it leaves staff vulnerable to watered-down working rights and conditions in the future.
Unison and Unite both secured significant mandates in formal ballots for strike action, with the former receiving an enormous 89 per cent yes vote for the walk-out. Among those demonstrating today is Whelley domestic Amanda Grimes, who has worked at Wigan Infirmary for nine years.
Amanda, 44, said: “I love working for the NHS. We have won awards for being the cleanest hospital and I am very proud to work here.
“The proposal isn’t fair. The NHS should provide jobs that are good and secure. We don’t want the next generation of domestics and porters and catering staff in Wigan to have worse pay and conditions than we have.”
Fellow domestic Joanne McClure from Beech Hill, who has more than 20 years’ experience, said downing tools was extremely stressful.
Joanne, 38, said: “The plan is about saving money so it is a big risk to us, and what happens if the new company goes bust? It’s a risk we don’t want to have to take.
“I’ve never been in this situation before and it’s nerve-racking to be going on strike. But we are all determined and staff are being very supportive of one another.
“If we don’t stop this plan what happens next? Other NHS staff might be outsourced. We want there to be an NHS in another 70 years and so we are fighting for our jobs and to defend the NHS.”
A rally was due to take place at noon in Wigan town centre with MP Lisa Nandy, who has backed the strike to the hilt, attending.
Trade union representatives hit out at what they see as an attempt to divide the NHS workforce as the health service celebrates seven decades this year.
Sean Gibson, Unison’s North West regional organiser, said: “The staff are determined to stop the WWL Solutions plan and they have done themselves proud in standing together against it. The Trust management has underestimated their resolve throughout.
“Our members are asking why, if the Trust needs to save money, they don’t look at what they’re paying the people at the top. Why are they starting with the lowest-paid workers in the hospitals?
“The WWL Solutions proposal is an attack on the living standards and job security of people who live in the communities that this Trust is supposed to serve. And it is an attack on the prospects of future hospital staff.
“As we approach the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the NHS, the Trust needs to grant the wish of this group of core hospital staff to remain in the direct employment of the NHS.
“They should stop trying to divide the workforce up and keep the NHS team together.
“They should abandon their WWL Solutions plan.”
The Wigan Post tried to contact Neil Turner, the former Labour MP set to become chairman of WWL Solutions, but was unsuccessful.
WWL acknowledged the 48-hour strike action involved a significant number of staff in the estates and facilities division but said employees have been drafted elsewhere to ensure the hospitals can cope.
No appointments or operations have had to be cancelled and all staff who will be working during the two days of industrial action are being fully supported, the Trust said.
However, patients who do not have life-threatening conditions are being encouraged to seek alternative services including GPs, walk-in centres and pharmacies.
There will be some disruption to services with shops and dining rooms having to be closed across all the WWL sites today and tomorrow.
Arrangements have been made for cold drinks and snacks to be served at set times throughout the strike days to patients, staff and visitors.
A WWL spokesman said: “With a large number of Trust volunteers enabling us to provide critical patient services, we ask that patients and visitors to all of our sites bear with us during this time period.
“We would like to reassure our patients, staff and the public that business continuity plans are being carried out to ensure that our services will continue to run as smoothly and safely as possible during the 48 hours of industrial action.”
In the run-up to the strike supporters of industrial action took to social media to spread their messages.
A social media account on Twitter called Save WWL NHS accused senior Trust bosses of refusing to listen to employees’ concerns about WWL Solutions. It described the strike as a move born out of “desperation” to be heard among staff.
The action has also attracted local political support, with ex-Wigan Infirmary porter and popular Wigan Council backbencher Coun George Davies previously saying he backed the staff and all NHS staff should be employed on the same terms.