Striking workers at a world-famous children’s hospital have reached an agreement which will allow their protests to continue, following an ‘unprecedented’ legal ruling.
Outsourced security guards at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital (GOSH) are currently on strike for six weeks, in a bid to win equal terms and conditions to their in-house colleagues, including sick pay.
Why are the guards on strike, and what did the original court order say?
GOSH security guards say they worked through the pandemic taking on additional risks and responsibilities, but the hospital still refuses to even discuss giving them the same rights as all their colleagues, who are directly employed by GOSH.
The strike began earlier this month and is set to run for six weeks, making it one of the longest strikes in NHS history.
After the first week of strike action the hospital sought a restrictive injunction against United Voices of the World (UVW), the trade union representing the workers.
The high court order prevented workers or their supporters from “waving banners”, “vigorous dancing” or “making rapid dramatic movements” within 200 metres of the hospital.
The hospital maintains that it did not intend to completely shut down the protests, but that “peaceful protest should never mean disruption” to patient care.
John Whittington, a former patient at GOSH and a GP, says he joined the striking guards’ picket line during his lunch break, describing the protests as “unfailingly respectful”.
He said: “As an NHS doctor, I fully support GOSH security guards in their campaign for fair treatment at work. They deserve the same conditions as their NHS colleagues. They have been denied proper sick pay during the pandemic.
“Speakers on the picket line shared some truths that GOSH’s board clearly do not want heard. Hospital security guards work so hard to keep patients and staff safe. Accusing them of intimidation is cynical, dishonest and wrong.”
‘A serious assault on the right to strike’
In an open letter published this week, over 180 academics from institutions across the UK expressed their “deep concern” about the “unprecedented ruling” which they described as “a serious assault on all unions and the right to strike”.
The Institute for Race Relations (IRR) has also raised concerns about the dispute, highlighting the case in a recent newsletter.
As a majority of the outsourced workers at GOSH are black, migrants and ethnic minorities, they are also pursuing a claim of indirect race discrimination at tribunal.
This has legal precedent, following a ruling last year against Royal Parks and in favour of outsourced members of UVW.
The IRR notes: “It is BME and migrant workers who are more likely to be in the outsourced sector, which means less pay, fewer employment rights, comprising, as the November 2021 UVW vs Royal Parks’ judgement confirmed, indirect race discrimination.
Trade union support
General secretary of UVW, Petros Elia, said the level of restrictions placed on the striking guards “haven’t been seen since the miners strike”.
He said: “This clamp down is a clear result of the increasingly effective and defiant action by unions like UVW who are no longer tolerating rich bosses like GOSH treating workers like crap and who would rather waste money on lawyer’s fees rather than paying for sick pay.
“Bosses used to depend more on the police to smash strikes and break unions and instead they’re now choosing to use the courts more to try and shackle workers.”
The dispute has attracted attention from across the trade union movement, with senior figures from the IWGB and UCU offering solidarity.
Speaking outside the Royal Court of Justice on Wednesday, Eddie Dempsey of the RMT trade union called for a “coordinated effort” in support of the security guards.
He said: “We need to stand behind the UVW. We need to start doing strike action in a coordinated effort together, to have maximum impact on employers. Let’s fight together!”
What does the new court order say?
Following negotiations between GOSH and UVW prompted by a high court hearing on Wednesday, the new agreement will allow for demonstrations within certain areas.
The overall limit on general protests near the hospital premises has been reduced to 50m, and the restrictions within the allocated protest areas have also been relaxed somewhat, with the bans on waving banners and “rapid dramatic movements” no longer in place.
While the original order has been overturned and replaced with a less restrictive order, the union says it is still “unjustifiably oppressive.”
Elia said: “We’re pleased we were able to claw back some of the rights which were taken and attempted to be taken from us, including the right to dance and protest in unlimited numbers outside GOSH, among others, but the restrictions in place are still unjustifiably oppressive.
“UVW will continue to fight back against these draconian attacks from wealthy bosses and call on the union movement to support the striking GOSH security guards.”
However, hospital sources say the ruling was never about preventing all forms of protest, but was solely motivated by concerns over patient care.
A spokesperson for Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children said: “Today’s outcome supports the simple idea that peaceful protest should never mean disruption to the care of seriously ill children.
“We are pleased that the agreement reached ensures that the right to peaceful protest is exercised in a way that respects the setting of a children’s hospital.”
Alain Fieulaine, a UVW member who has worked at GOSH for 15 years, told NationalWorld that despite the order the workers intend to continue the six-week strike.
He said: “The GOSH trustees have ignored our calls for equality with our NHS counterparts and our fight as key workers for full sick pay. Instead they hire fancy, expensive lawyers and spend thousands trying to silence us.
“We are simply protesting for equal rights and our bosses respond by continuing to condone structural racism at GOSH. Despite all of this, we are back on track, our six-week strike continues. We are going to fight and we are going to win!”
Outsourced hospital workers on strike elsewhere
There have been a number of protests and strikes by outsourced workers at London hospitals in recent weeks.
Cleaners at a private London hospital owned by a multibillion US healthcare firm have raised serious concerns about Covid safety and working conditions.
The outsourced cleaners at London Bridge Hospital are paid less than the London Living Wage, and claim they have not received adequate PPE while working during the pandemic.
The general secretary of the IWGB, Henry Chango Lopez, said: “It is completely unacceptable that a multi-billion dollar company that took £190 million of NHS money during the pandemic is forcing its outsourced cleaners to work in dangerous conditions for poverty pay.