ON October 1st, 1995 56 domestic and catering workers at Hillingdon Hospital were sacked by Pall Mall for refusing to accept a £40 per week wage cut.
This was a momentous struggle that ended after five years with Unison shop steward Malkiat Bilku leading her members back to work on their original terms and conditions with no victimisations on October 30, 2000.
In May 1995, employer Pall Mall announced that they intended to cut the wages by £40 a week, and change working conditions.
The strike started off as an ‘unofficial’ action on October 1st, 1995 as although the members had voted for action, the union did not call a strike.
It took nine weeks to force them to make it official.
On October 21, 1995 Unison organised a national demonstration over low pay and Hillingdon strikers took part.
They fought to be at the front of the march as they were leading the fight against low pay privateers and defied the stewards who tried to physically remove them.
At the rally at the end of the march in Kennington, strike leader Malkiat Bilku won overwhelming support in spite of union officials trying to stop her speaking – but the band on the stage refused to play until she was allowed a voice.
From day one the strikers picketed the hospital every day.
They received huge support locally and from all over the country.
Hundreds of union branches and workers’ organisations sent support and joined in the many demonstrations and marches that the strikers held.
The strikers lobbied the Unison headquarters to demand their strike be made official.
They occupied the building until the then General Secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe came down to speak to them.
Finally on November 17 1995 they forced Unison to make the strike official, which was unanimously voted for at its 1996 National Delegate Conference.
It was agreed 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.
The strike remained official until January 16, 1997 when Unison declared that the strike was over.
They told the strikers to accept the Pall Mall offer of £6,000 compensation as this was the best they would get.
They also stated that they would not win their Industrial Tribunal.
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.
At a strike meeting the following Sunday morning they resolved to continue their strike, and defy the Unison leadership.
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.
One month later, the Annual General Meeting of the London Region of Unison voted to give £10,000 to the Hillingdon Strikers’ Support Campaign but this was stopped by the Unison leadership.
Meanwhile, Pall Mall pulled out of Hillingdon Hospital and media giant Granada took over the contract.
A High Court injunction was brought by the hospital against the strikers picketing outside the hospital, and they were forced to move from the hospital entrance but picketing continued.
They were given a small caravan by nearby Hounslow council and the picket continued through all weathers every day for five years.
On the second anniversary of the strike 3,000 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 Tribunal which meant that their claims for unfair dismissal would now be heard.
Then at the Unison national 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 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.
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, the new employers, did nothing.
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.
On October 30th 2000, Malkiat Bilku walked back into the hospital, accompanied by Alan Keen MP, 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 from the huge respect won by the Hillingdon strike, she received 30,000 votes from all sections of the union.
The Hillingdon strike was a resounding victory for the whole working class and a major defeat for the privateers.
The Hillingdon experience shows that these treacherous trade union leaders can be beaten and the working class can win their struggles but it needs a revolutionary leadership.