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Trade Unionists set for initial strikes at York District Hospital – more to follow

Union members at York District Hospital have voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action, officials announced yesterday. A ballot of members of the Unite union returned a majority of 92.6% in favour of a strike, in a dispute over the implementation of a Limited Liability Company (LLC), a private initiative set to be effectively forced on health workers with effect from the 1st of October. With two days of strike action already announced for the 27th and 28th of September – and the possibility of further action under consideration – an escalating row has erupted over the Trust’s lack of meaningful consultation with both the unions and the public.

York TUC President Leigh Wilks, who writing in the York Press back in March publicly urged the Trust to enter into talks, reiterated who should shoulder the blame in a press release issued earlier today: “The so-called consultation process in this case is a joke. York NHS Trust has some serious questions to answer. Agree to talks now, as we asked you to do six months ago. You are barely meeting the legal definition of meaningful consultation, and for a public service that is not acceptable.” He added: “No union member takes going on strike lightly. But by all accounts York NHS Trust has attempted to frustrate the union reps with a campaign of evasiveness and subterfuge. Refusing to show the business plan for the LLC on the basis that it is “commercially sensitive” does not fool anyone, and your written assurances to staff that roles will remain unaffected are clearly not believed by 96% of Unite members. If you fail to act now, that shows a clear intransigence totally inappropriate to a public service provider.”

Unite shop steward and York TUC delegate Mal Richardson, who with colleague Michelle Hartlett has led the hospital workers’ campaign against the Limited Liability Company, was even more forthright: “If they discipline me, I’ll be on the picket line. If they bully me, I’ll still be on the picket line. And if they sack me, I will come back to haunt them.”

Limited Liability Companies (LLC) have been used by various NHS trusts up and down the country as a means of bringing healthcare workers under the auspices of a private company, while still under the public NHS umbrella. In some areas, they have been forced through with very little opposition; however in others, they have met with fierce union resistance, forcing the health trusts to back down and abandon the policy. Part of the problem with the York Trust’s plans is the appalling lack of transparency and the limitation of meaningful “consultation” to a list of “Q&A’s” issued to staff on a piece of paper. The general public – mostly oblivious to the fact that the plan even exists – have been given even less of an opportunity to voice their concerns. By attempting to rush the plan through as quickly as possible, the Trust’s management have shown a contempt to their staff, their union stewards who are there to represent their interests, and the public who rely on the service and who overwhelmingly oppose further privatisation.

The closure of Bootham Park Hospital, which has left York with little to no mental health provision and resulted in vulnerable patients being shipped off to private providers in Darlington and elsewhere, has shown that – at a minimum – the management of York NHS Trust now deserves business serious scrutiny and that – in the case of this proposed Limited Liability Company – they are doing everything they can to avoid being scrutinised. Their cavalier attitude to consulting their staff, and the union reps who represent them, is characteristic of the behaviour of the very worst multinational corporations; the fact that this behaviour should be displayed by the city’s biggest employer, and the nation’s number one public service, is a devastating reflection of the times – and a savage indictment of the free-market policies of one of the most vicious Governments in living memory. “The ball is now in their court,” says Mr Wilks. “They have had well over six months notice of what could potentially happen if they didn’t listen to the concerns of the staff. Let us hope now that they put this plan on hold – or better still, abandon it. But forcing this through is no longer an option – I hope that at the very least is crystal clear. You will not stream-roller these plans through if we have anything to do with it – and if you do, there will be hell to pay.”

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Unions ballot for industrial action at York NHS Trust

Unite and Unison, who recently held indicative ballots of their members showing a majority of over 77% in favour of industrial action including strike action, are now in official dispute with York NHS Trust. This follows the Trust’s plans to set up a Limited Liability Company to outsource jobs to the private sector (as reported by York TUC in the York Press, 13th March 2018) without meaningful consultation with either union’s officials or their members. A ballot for industrial action is being held among members this week and, considering the result of the indicative ballot, it seems likely that members may vote for some form of industrial action.

Two months ago, the Trust sent out letters to all staff claiming that the move to set up a Limited Liability Company was essential for the Trust to be able to maintain its financial commitments, while simultaneously claiming that – for the majority of staff – terms and conditions of employment would remain unaffected. However, they have been unable to offer any guarantees regarding pensions and security of employment, have refused to show either union a copy of their business plan relating to the setting up of the LLC, and refused to enter into any meaningful consultation where staff and union members can address their concerns about this concerning development.

From the beginning, York NHS Trust have employed tactics of duplicity and subterfuge; initially denying there were any such plans to set up an LLC, before being forced to admit that they were “under consideration”. Behaving with all the scruples of the most devious private employer, the Trust on the one hand claims that employee roles will be unaffected, but on the other, refuses to consult properly with the two unions representing the workforce. And despite initially agreeing to talks, their inability to offer any assurances with regard to pensions and job role terms and conditions, their previous “assurances” that roles will be unaffected are not worth the paper they are written on.

This is unacceptable behaviour for an NHS Trust. In our statement issued in March we pointed out the foolishness of considering such a plan – the collapse of Carrillion was in the news at the time and amply illustrated the dangers of public services being outsourced to a third party company – limited liability or not. Just last month, the Government had to take back control of HMP Birmingham following the singular failure of G4S to run it as a proper public service. How many more examples do we need to show that the involvement of private initiatives in public services do not benefit the user or the taxpayer? York NHS Trust’s assurances ring hollow when we look at other areas across the region who have implemented similar initiatives which have led to increased privatisation of the service.

York TUC is involved – along with the individual unions – in the NHS Steering Group set up to coordinate opposition to this plan, and we hope that delegates and individual union members will become involved in this campaign. The closure of Bootham Park, which was a devastating blow to mental health services in the city, was a blow to the Trust’s prestige and showed their total lack of competence when faced with difficult decisions; a situation now exacerbated by this. We urge York NHS Trust to agree to urgent talks with both unions before the situation deteriorates any further, and to engage in proper consultation as befits the city’s largest and most important employer. Union members do not relish the idea of any kind of industrial action – especially within such a vital public service. However, their patience has understandably been pushed to the limit by the duplicitous behaviour of the Trust and their attitude towards Unite and Unison, who they appear to regard as nothing more than an annoyance.

It is time for York NHS Trust to behave like a proper public service and not an unscrupulous private sector employer. Their attitude towards their hard-working staff and union members is not acceptable and should this situation result in industrial action, it will be as a direct result of their intransigence, incompetence and inability to engage in proper meaningful talks. If this situation deteriorates any further, we will ensure that the general public are made aware of who is at fault, and that the blame lies squarely at the door of the management of York NHS Trust.