“We took the political struggle over the future of the NHS from the hospital gates into the city centres, targeting the companies directly profiting from the NHS sell-off”, said one participant in a day of action called Picket the Profiteers.
While the junior doctors were on strike on 26 April, eleven additional actions included an early morning blockade of a Virgin Care office and the picketing (and attempted storming) of a conference of CEOs of companies in London, plus flying pickets in other towns and cities across the UK which shut down Boots and Virgin stores.
For those watching the mainstream media coverage of the junior doctors’ strikes and the ongoing negotiations it may come as a surprise that the causes for industrial action go way beyond the issue of wages and working conditions alone. But if the working conditions of NHS staff are diminished the sector becomes more attractive to businesses aiming to make inroads into healthcare provision. Junior doctors have been very clear about the impact these changes would have on the care ultimately delivered. By stretching them thinner, it is more likely that Jeremy Hunt can claim the NHS is failing and use this to make a case for opening more of it up to private firms.
The private sector is already estimated to deliver 18% of elective surgery (non-urgent surgery) and this is a market that private healthcare companies are increasingly poised to dominate, if more changes in the NHS are implemented.
While the strikes have been greeted with massive support from the junior doctors themselves (98% of those balloted voted in favour) and the wider public, the government don’t seem too inclined to listen.
Although the strength of political arguments is important for attracting the support of the wider public and mobilising one’s own supporters, other forms of power are also needed to build the political leverage needed for victory. Caught within the confines of restrictive trade union laws, and the political challenges common to all care work – how to fight for better wages and conditions whilst looking after those in one’s care – the BMA will find it a challenge to escalate this dispute.
Picket the Profiteers allows those not directly involved in the dispute to show their solidarity, and further expand the struggle over the future direction of the NHS. By bringing this tactic – UK Uncut style decentralised action against private companies – into an existing industrial dispute we are attempting to further socialise this strike: bringing more people into the struggle and expanding its leverage in ways which the BMA can’t themselves.
We recognise that simply halting this wave of privatisation is not enough. We know that our vision for healthcare in the UK can’t be based on retuning to a mythical ‘golden age’ but needs to be grounded in critiques of the present state of healthcare currently being developed by workers and patients. So we wrote a series of demands which we hope will spark discussion and debate to help provide some orientation for the movement which is building around the NHS struggle.
Our mixture of short and long term demands includes the resignation of Jeremy Hunt and the ongoing development of a free, universal and democratic healthcare system.
The public, in general, were very supportive of our pickets and generally ‘got’ the connections we were trying to make between the doctors’ strike and a wider political perspective against privatisation and for community control of our common institutions.
The doctors that we spoke to, or organised with, were mainly on board – some expressing thanks that we were taking action they were legally forbidden to take. However, of course, on the day a small minority complained about #picketprofiteers being ‘overly-political’ by trying to broaden the discussion beyond wages, whilst for others direct action was a step too far.
Alongside my own organisation – Plan C – who called this action, groups such as Solidarity Federation, the Industrial Workers of the World, Disabled People Against the Cuts, and other groups of experienced organisers provided the logistical backbone and mobilising power to make the day a success. As time progresses we aim to build stronger alliances across the left whilst making the case for those not currently involved in political organising to hit the streets.
All our actions had some level of success and, potentially more importantly, our strategy has spread beyond the initial groups involved. We are excited to hear of discussions and plans being formed in other cities since. While this form of action will at some point lose its effectiveness, at the moment Picket the Profiteers is asking important questions about what is needed to win both the Junior Doctors Strike and to not only resist the current round of austerity programmes but, eventually, to get onto the offensive. If you wish to participate please get in touch.
Kevin is a member of Plan C and was actively involved in organising the Picket Profiteers action.