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In September 2013, Doncaster Council – then under an English Democrat mayor – handed over its supported living services for adult social care to Care UK, a private company that has been taking over large swathes of health and social care provision across the country. The existing workforce believed that its terms and conditions would be protected under TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings – Protection of Employment) regulations, and that if any savings were to be made the company would seek them elsewhere.
They were wrong. After a month the company called the unions for talks over its proposals to save money, since the contract value was less than the wage bill. At the start of 2014 it came back with a set of proposals that involved replacing NHS enhancement payments with £1 per hour extra for unsocial hours, including nights, on weekdays and £2 for weekends and bank holidays. Sickness benefit would be drastically cut to one month full pay and one month half pay, and annual leave would also be reduced. The changes amounted to a cut in take-home pay of up to £500 per month and in the longer term would affect staff pension pots so that they would have to work longer.
Unison and Royal College of Nursing members rejected the proposals and a ballot of Unison members produced a 96 per cent vote for strike action. This started with a one-week walkout on 27 February and continued with 35 days of strikes in total over the next three months.
The workers were backed by other union members from different districts, and during a two-week stoppage in May an itinerary was devised for daily action and events. Local MPs, including Labour leader Ed Miliband, have been forced to take note of the strikers’ campaign and efforts have been made to turn it into a national issue, with ‘road trips’ being organised to various localities. These included protests at Care UK’s head office in Colchester and other branches around Sheffield and Leeds.
The main focus of the road trips involved a visit to Care UK’s London office and that of its major shareholder Bridgepoint, a pan-European private equity investor with assets valued at more than £11 billion. A petition was also handed in at Downing Street. Bridgepoint tried to wash its hands of the dispute, saying it had nothing to do with the running of Care UK.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis, who joined the striking workers on their picket line, paid tribute to their resistance in his speech to the union’s national delegate conference in June. Introducing six of them to the hall by name, he led an emotional ovation as the conference rose to applaud them.
Despite widespread support from across the country – the campaign has been repeatedly described as ‘inspirational’, encouraging others to stand up and fight privatisation – the workers were eventually forced to settle for transitional payments to alleviate hardship. An employment tribunal case was lost, and Care UK will not abide by any future NHS pay deals.
But the struggle has not ended there. The workers have submitted their own pay claim for 2014/15. This includes a basic pay rise for all staff and a minimum starting rate of £7.65 an hour, the current living wage. A consultative vote on further action resulted in an 85 per cent mandate for a strike ballot, which is now going ahead.
In urging its members to vote Yes to strike action, Unison says that ‘together we can show Care UK that their terms and conditions are not going to be accepted and we will stand alongside our new colleagues in a move towards equality and a better standard of living. We will fight and we will bite the hand that refuses to feed.’
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