Bitter wrangles and strikes in health issue which lasted months

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis and MPs with strikers
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis and MPs with strikers
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The battle over the implementation of WWL Solutions has been the story dominating discussion of the NHS in the borough in 2018.

Altogether the campaign to stop the wholly-owned company has run for around six months, with bitter wranglings, intense debates and finally a series of strikes.

Related: NHS strikes over as council's offer stops subsidiary firm

The issue first came to public notice in late January when the Wigan Observer reported bosses at Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh (WWL) NHS Foundation Trust were reassuring employees worried about WWL Solutions.

Whistleblowers raised the alarm about the potential erosion of terms and conditions for those employed by the subsidiary company, with trade unions offering support.

That, however, was far from the beginning of the story.

As far back as late 2016 managers in the estates and facilities department at WWL, under pressure to contribute to the Trust’s overall savings budget and struggling to work out how they could do that without job losses, were learning about the model adopted in Gateshead.

That would become the blueprint for WWL Solutions, a wholly-owned company for estates and facilities and also procurement staff at the borough’s hospitals.

Bosses thought this enabled staff to stay within the NHS (albeit indirectly) while preserving the quality of services and filling financial black holes by allowing public-sector organisations to compete on a level playing field for contracts elsewhere thanks to not having to pay VAT.

A scoping process and due diligence work followed, with the Trust speaking at length with numerous NHS organisations in the North East, talking to their neighbours in Bolton NHS Foundation Trust and receiving financial input from KPMG.

Once the initial concerns had been raised, though, opposition grew swiftly.

Less than a week later Unison was holding the first of its ballots asking if employees in the borough were happy with the proposed reshuffle and if they would be minded to take industrial action.

The result, delivered a week later at the start of February, was overwhelming. On a turnout of 79 per cent a massive 93 per cent of those taking part did not want to work for WWL Solutions.

Political voices began to speak out both for and against.

Ex-MP Neil Turner, who was in line to chair WWL Solutions, tried to allay people’s fears and assure them of their futures, citing local NHS leaders’ long-standing opposition to any kind of privatisation.

However, popular backbencher and former Wigan Infirmary porter Coun George Davies of Wigan Central ward was equally quick to denounce the plans, saying ancillary staff must remain fully within the NHS.

That echoed the words of current Wigan MP Lisa Nandy, who had spoken out against WWL Solutions early in February and remained implacably on the side of workers throughout the entire dispute.

On February 13 she stepped up her opposition, calling on Trust bosses to think again.

The pressure quickly told. In the same week WWL chief executive Andrew Foster was promising to listen to staff’s concerns and embarking on a three-stage strategy to attempt to find a way forward acceptable to the mounting numbers of critics.

That would not be a success. In mid-March Unison’s second ballot showed overwhelming opposition. Demonstrations were held outside Wigan Infirmary at the end of the month.

In-mid April Unison opened its formal ballot for strike action. A few days into May the result came back. An enormous 89 per cent were against WWL Solutions, giving a massive mandate to take employees to the picket line.

Soon after that Unite, which has WWL maintenance staff such as plumbers and electricians in its ranks of members, delivered an equally emphatic vote for strike action.

As WWL started to make preparation ACAS, the arbitration and conciliation service, was called in to mediate. The talks got nowhere.

The first 48-hour walk-out took place on May 23 and 24. Public support was clear and local MPs went to the picket line to give their backing to the protestors, many of them demonstrating for the first time in their lives.

In the aftermath of the strike the dispute escalated quickly.

Inflammatory comments by Mr Foster accused unions of cramming the pavements with politically-motivated individuals and accused employees of sabotage. The response was utter fury.

Social media messages attacking strikers were also picked up as the rift between the bosses and those on the shop-floor grew wider. Mr Turner once again spoke to the media to try to allay fears but his intervention had little effect.

The second strike in mid-June saw the dispute take on an overtly national focus as TUC boss Frances O’Grady, probably the country’s top trade unionist, visited Wigan Infirmary.

Campaigners said the eyes of the country were on the borough as it became clear that what happened with WWL Solutions would determine whether other Trusts ploughed ahead with similar plans.

The unions stepped up their opposition with five days of strike action to start on June 28, the day after the board would decide whether to approve the subsidiary firm or not.

Wigan Council leader Coun David Molyneux, whose deputy leader Coun Keith Cunliffe had already backed the strikers, took a diplomatic position, urging both sides to talk again and come to an agreement for the sake of

patients.

That did not happen. The five-day strike went ahead, with Unison general secretary Dave Prentis the second national figure to make his way to the borough.

Wigan demonstrators were put front of stage at a massive march in London to mark the NHS’ 70th anniversary, while a delegation got Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s support at a union conference.

The board met in a heightened atmosphere and approved WWL Solutions.

Angry scenes ensued, with Unite’s representatives subsequently being banned from the Trust’s premises for their actions.

A seven-day strike was being lined up. The dispute looked set to run and run.

But then came a Friday afternoon bombshell. The council had stepped in to broker a deal, and just like that, months of battles were over.