Has the outsourcing of groups of workers limited their ability to fight back? Ian Taylor looks at recent strikes that challenge this claim, while Kevin Devine looks at the growth of outsourcing.
Outsourcing need not end workers' power to resist their employer. Strikes by three groups in the last three months - cleaners at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, ancillary workers at Ealing Hospital, London, and Care UK workers in Doncaster - make that clear.
Cleaners at SOAS won improved holidays, sick pay and pensions after taking on multinational ISS, one of the world's biggest employers.
The group of mainly migrant workers struck for three days in March after a long campaign for parity with in-house workers.
They sought contractual sick pay, 30 days annual leave and a defined pension scheme. And they won sick pay from the first day of employment, up to seven extra holidays a year and a company pension scheme.
As SOAS Unison branch secretary Sandy Nicoll explained, "We moved ISS from claiming there would be no offer to one that goes some way to meet the cleaners' demands."
Striker Consuelo Moreno Yusti had worked at SOAS for nine years and been a Unison rep for seven. She told Socialist Worker, "When we started, people feared to become union members."
Unison rep Lenin Escudero had worked at SOAS for 11 years and been involved in the union since 2006. He said, "We were invisible when we started. Nobody cared about the cleaners."
They faced immigration raids and sackings.
But the cleaners had the backing of Unison, having won union recognition in 2008. Lenin said, "The union encouraged us to fight." And solidarity from fellow trade unionists and the student union at SOAS was vital in raising funds and mobilising support.
Porters, domestic, catering and help-desk workers employed by Compass Medirest at Ealing Hospital, west London, faced a similar employer.
Medirest is the healthcare arm of multinational group Compass, which employs 500,000-plus workers in 50 countries and has a turnover of 17.5 billion pounds. In May, Compass announced a 1 billion pound payout to shareholders.
The 150 workers staged a series of strikes over pay and for parity with NHS workers. They sought a rise from the legal minimum wage of 6.31 to the London Living wage of 8.80. The lowest comparable NHS rate is 9.09.
GMB union rep Domingo Fernandez said, "When we showed doctors our pay slips they couldn't believe how low paid we are."
The workers, members of the GMB, staged two 48-hour strikes in February and struck for seven days in mid-March.
They were poised to begin a second seven-day strike in early April when the company tabled a new offer. The deal raised the hourly rate by 1 pound to 7.31 from 1 April.
More important, Compass agreed to harmonise rates from April 2015, meaning an increase to 9.10 to 9.30 an hour. The minimum wage they were on will rise to just 6.50 in October. The strikers also won sick pay - a week on full pay and three weeks half pay - and an additional two days annual leave.
GMB Medirest senior rep Bhimraj Rai said, "We are very pleased. We never wanted to take strike action but we had no option." Fellow rep Payal Paul agreed, "This is a massive victory. It will end the two-tier workforce."
Regional GMB organiser Stella George-Duesbury noted, "The key was mobilising and increasing the number of members. There were six GMB members 18 months ago. The number now exceeds 150. This gave the members the ability and confidence to win."
Unfortunately, Unison members working alongside the strikers did not join the strikes. Domingo said, "It's disappointing. We came together to save the hospital when it was under threat."
Ealing A and E was reprieved from closure last October following a lengthy fight. Yet Unison members at another London hospital, Homerton in Hackney, showed the way to break down such divisions during the same dispute.
When Medirest tried to bring Homerton workers to Ealing by taxi, Unison members at Homerton organised to stop it. One said, "We put together a leaflet explaining workers in Ealing weren't paid the same and that is why they were striking. People were shocked and many refused to go."
Up to 150 workers for private healthcare firm Care UK in Doncaster staged 34 days of strikes between late February and mid-May (and were poised to continue as Socialist Review went to press) as they fight plans to impose new contracts and slash take-home pay. Care UK is majority owned by private equity firm Bridgepoint Capital.
The action has involved a series of strikes with the latest lasting two weeks. Care UK's deadline for workers to sign the new contracts came and went on 7 April. These would cut pay by up to 7,000 pounds a year by slashing enhancements for working evenings, weekends, bank holidays and nights.
Care UK began terminating contracts in late May. But strike committee member Mags Dalton told Socialist Worker, "The fight goes on. We believe we can win."
The law requires the strikers to re-ballot and launch a fresh dispute following 12 weeks' action or they could be dismissed legally. But Unison rep Andy Squires said, "This is not over. We're going to fight all the way."
Unison regional organiser Jim Bell told Socialist Worker, "This is a testing ground for our ability to organise. Everybody is watching. We have to win. If we don't the message will go out to other employers that Unison did its best but it wasn't enough."
The workers care for about 140 adults with learning difficulties in up to 40 properties around Doncaster. The dispersed workforce and the nature of their work do not make striking easy.
Yet the strikers showed their determination to fight on in May by electing an 18-strong strike committee, and solidarity collections have raised about 50,000 pounds. Unison undoubtedly wants a victory. The question is how does it take the strike forward?
Union general secretary Dave Prentis joined the picket line in May, bringing both a cheque and a collection, announcing, "Our members have shown courage and self-sacrifice to take this action. I want to show our admiration and solidarity." He also needs to show leadership.
Care workers in South Wales launched a similar fight in May against plans by private care firm Gwalia to slash pay and conditions among workers at Neath-Port Talbot council. Unison backed a 24-hour strike and workers joined a Care UK workers' rally in Doncaster, demonstrating the impact one group taking action can have on others.
Gwalia described reports of a 45 percent pay cut as "unrepresentative" but didn't deny it. The company calls itself "a Living Wage employer". It could be, but only if workers force its hand.
Outsourcing by numbers:
187 billion pounds: annual state spend on goods and services
93.5 billion pounds: of this goes to private companies
Worldwide revenue 7.2 bn
UK revenue 1.4 bn
UK public sector and central government
revenue (2012-13) 0.7 bn
Worldwide revenue 3.4 bn
UK revenue 3.2 bn
UK public sector revenue 1.1 bn
Worldwide revenue 8 bn
UK revenue 1.9 bn
UK public sector revenue 0.7 bn
Worldwide revenue 4.9 bn
UK revenue 2.7 bn
UK public sector revenue 1.8 bn
All figures for 2012 unless stated. UK public sector figures exclude devolved spending in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Source: Office for National Statistics
The growth of outsourcing an In Perspective column by Kevin Devine