Today in London striking herstory, 1995: Hillingdon Hospital cleaners strike against casualisation

‘We’ve met people from all over the world who are supporting us: from Russia, India, South Africa, America, Germany – even Winnie Mandela! They know we are low-paid workers. They know we are mostly Asian workers. But the point isn’t that we’re Asian, black, white, women or whatever. This is a struggle of workers against greedy bosses.’

The Hillingdon Hospital Strike began on October 1st, 1995 when 56 domestic and catering workers were sacked by private contractor Pall Mall for refusing to accept a £40 per week wage cut.

The strike continued for five years.

On October 30, 2000, UNISON shop steward Malkiat Bilku led her members back to work on their original terms and conditions with no victimisations, having also won maximum compensation for unfair dismissal.

The women were ‘outsourced’ in 1986. In September 1985 at the civic centre, the District Health Authority had voted to privatise the Hospital cleaning service, with the loss of 213 jobs.

Hillingdon was one of the first private contracts after St Helier, Hammersmith to be forced through by the Tory government.

This had not taken place without any resistance – for instance a One Day strike organised by COHSE and NUPE had taken at Hillingdon Hospital on 23rd May 1985, in protest at the hospital’s privatisation programme and in support of strikers at Barking hospital.

Hillingdon Hospital Management had put a vote to domestic staff – asked them either to lose their bonus or be privatised. The staff voted overwhelmingly against cutting their bonus.

After privatisation, some 320 ‘domestic’ staff at the Hillingdon Hospital found themselves employed not directly by the NHS, but by private contractor ICC Hospital Services Ltd. ICC took over the contract from February 1st 1986.

A series of NHS reforms had been introduced by the Thatcher Government – it was still politically inadvisable to launch a frontal assault on the principles of the NHS itself – which imposed the ‘contracting out’ of specific services, like catering and cleaning, to the lowest bidders in the private sector. ‘They thought that the people could do more work for less wages,’ said Malkiat Bilku. In the process the staff lost sick pay, bonus and pension rights.

In 1989 another company, Initial, took over the contract and cut working hours. The number of staff fell to 220, though the work remained the same. Then, in 1994, the contract was passed on again, this time to Pall Mall, part of the Davies Group international conglomerate, which proposed a 20 per cent wage cut.

Greater ‘efficiency’ at the Hillingdon Hospital was being paid for straight out of the purses of these women – already among the lowest-paid in the country. To increase its efficiency still further, the hospital also announced that it would refuse admission to patients aged over 75.

Then Pall Mall went one step further. The company demanded the women’s passports – an intimidatory move, questioning their immigration status – and presented individuals with new contracts. ‘They told us, if you don’t sign this, you’ve got no job,’ said Malkiat Bilku. ‘We’d already had our wages cut, we’d already been transferred to a private company. We did not refuse to work. We did not even ask for more money. We did not ask for anything. And they asked for our passports and they wanted to force us to accept.’

In May 1995, Pall Mall announced that they were bringing in multi-skilling, intended to cut wages by what amounted to £40 a week, and change working conditions.

The 53 women refused to sign the new contracts and were duly locked out. In October 1995 the strike began, reluctantly supported by their union, Unison. Subsequent negotiations between Unison officials and Pall Mall produced a cash offer of $500 for each of the women as ‘compensation’ for the loss of their jobs.

The membership had voted for action, but the union officials did not call a strike, so the strike started off as an ‘unofficial’ action on October 1st, 1995.

The strikers had to battle with the trade union leaders for nine weeks to force them to make it official. UNISON organised a national demonstration on October 21, 1995 and Hillingdon strikers went along.

They fought to place themselves at the front of the march, as they were leading the fight in the NHS against the privateers, defying the stewards, who tried to physically remove them. At the rally in Kennington, the demonstration demanded that strike leader Malkiat Bilku be allowed to address them, which she did.

There were many demonstrations and marches that the strikers participated in. They organised two lobbies of the UNISON headquarters to demand their strike be made official. At one, where the NEC was meeting, the strikers occupied the building until the then General Secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe came down to speak to them.

Finally on November 17 1995, the UNISON Industrial Action Committee was forced to make the strike official. At the 1996 National Delegate Conference, a resolution was carried unanimously which said that the Hillingdon strike would be supported by the union until the remaining 53 strikers won their jobs back on their old terms and conditions.

But the trade union leaders resisted all calls for national action to win the Hillingdon struggle, while boasting that the strike had stopped Pall Mall cutting wages in their other NHS contracts. The irony being that, largely because of its behaviour at Hillingdon, Pall Mall had been losing numerous NHS contracts – much to the benefit of those who might otherwise have had to work for them, but not of the strikers themselves.

The strike remained official until January 16, 1997, when UNISON declared that the strike was over and told the strikers to accept the Pall Mall offer of £6,000 compensation as this was the best they would get and further, that they would not win their Industrial Tribunal.

They did allow a ballot but, as far as they were concerned, the strike was over!

Everything was being rushed through as a general election was coming in May, and they wanted the struggle out of the way so as not to ‘embarrass’ Labour. However, the strikers rejected the offer, insisting that they would continue until they got their jobs back and the Industrial Tribunal must proceed as well.

On January 16, the strikers lobbied the UNISON head office again where they found two rows of police armed with batons guarding the door of the head office.

At a strike meeting the following Sunday morning they resolved to fight back, continue their strike, and defy the UNISON leadership.
They would not return until they had won back their jobs, on the old terms and conditions.

A conference was called to announce their intention and in spite of the SWP and others, insisting that the strikers must accept the UNISON decision and call off their strike, the Conference overwhelmingly supported the strikers’ decision to continue their strike.

The strikers continued unofficially; they toured the country tirelessly for the next 18 months, winning huge support everywhere and raising enough money to pay £100 weekly strike pay to all the strikers.
They attended every demonstration and challenged Bickerstaffe and TUC General Secretary John Monks if they were there.

Just one month later, the Annual General Meeting of the London Region of UNISON voted to give £10,000 to the Hillingdon Strikers’ Support Campaign – a donation which was stopped by the UNISON leadership. They also tried to stop other branches and districts making donations.

Meanwhile, Pall Mall pulled out of Hillingdon Hospital and media giant Granada – a prominent money-spinner in the catering and media trades – took over the contract.
A High Court injunction was brought by the hospital against the strikers picketting outside the hospital, and refusing them entry. The strikers were forced to move from the hospital entrance but picketing continued (despite racist taunts directed at them from passers-by).

On the second anniversary of their strike, on October 1st, 1997, 3,000 people marched through Uxbridge, to a rally, on a working day, with a number of trade union leaders and MPs speaking at the rally.

In January 1998, the strikers won their appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal which meant that their claims for unfair dismissal by Pall Mall would now be heard.

Then at the UNISON conference in Bournemouth in 1998, in the last five minutes of the Conference, overcoming all the objections of Standing Orders and the attempt by the union’s bureaucracy to delay the resolution, the vast majority of the Conference voted for the emergency resolution which called to make the Hillingdon strike official again and restore their full membership.

The strike was once more back to being official, with national negotiations by the union to ‘ensure reinstatement’.

Then at their Employment Tribunal, Pall Mall admitted that they had wrongfully dismissed the hospital workers. Granada was left to meet the unfair dismissal claims.

The Tribunal ruled that the maximum compensation must be paid to all the strikers and that the employers should restore them back into their jobs at the hospital. Although this was carried, Granada did nothing. There were pickets of the Granada HQ to demand they take the workers back.

But Granada challenged the ruling and organised an appeal against this decision. Once again at the Employment Tribunal, Granada was defeated and the decision upheld. The strikers were paid maximum compensation and they also won the right to their jobs back at the hospital.

Every cynic said this would never happen but on October 30th 2000, Malkiat Bilku walked back into the hospital, to the first day back at her job after five years. She was subsequently elected as UNISON shop steward.

In 2004, she stood for the leadership of UNISON challenging for the position of General Secretary and received 30,000 votes.