Unite will support strikes, work-ins and occupations to defend NHS – says Peter Kavanagh

Unite banner with a clear message
Unite banner with a clear message

OVER 5,000 trade unionists, youth and families from across north London marched on Saturday from Highbury and Islington Station to the Whittington Hospital, Archway, to demand ‘stop the sell-off!’

The march and rally outside the north London hospital was against plans to sell off half of its estate and move care into the community.

The planned shake-up would result in 570 job cuts, including around 200 nurses, and a huge reduction in beds.

Banners on the march included Unite London Region, Whittington Unison health branch, GMB retired members, City&Islington College UCU, Islington NUT, University College Hospital Unison, and Barnet Unison.

A contingent from the North East London Council of Action won support for its call for occupations to defend every hospital and a general strike to defend the NHS and bring down the coalition government.

News Line spoke to some of the marchers before they set off.

Pensioner Esther Tew said: ‘My grandchildren were born at the Whittington.

‘I’m marching today because people have to stand up for the NHS and against all the cuts in general.

‘It’s disgraceful what the government is doing. They are hitting the disabled and people who can’t help themselves.

‘The unions should take action.

‘Maggie Thatcher tried to break the unions so people would be frightened of losing their jobs.

‘Now the unions are beginning to stand up again. There should be a general strike, it’s about time there was.’

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Islington Highways Department GMB shop steward Robert Hill said: ‘We’re marching to save the Whittington Hospital.

‘I work at Archway and our department looks after the pavements.

‘It’s physical work and injury-prone. We’ve also got an ageing workforce.

‘It’s important to be here as it’s our nearest A&E to our workplace.

‘With heart attacks every minute counts. To travel to the UCH and Homerton is too far and they are overcrowded anyway.

‘The unions should take action against losing any of our public services.

‘I’ve got a friend in the fire brigade and he’s just been told his fire station is to be closed down.

‘The unions should all stand together for the common cause which is to save our public services because the public rely on them.’

Heather Groombridge, Society of Radiographers member, added: ‘I’m against the Whittington sell-off.

‘If they are selling off the nurses’ accommodation how are they going to attract nurses and NHS staff to work in London?

‘Because of the high prices in London, they need affordable accommodation.

‘Nurses and healthcare assistants aren’t going to afford it if there’s no hospital accommodation.’

GMB member Cleveland Campbell said: ‘It’s very important what we are doing today, for now and the future.

‘I’m concerned about the lack of funding for the NHS. It’s a shame the Whittingto has to go for such drastic action to sell off their property.

‘The sell-off should not happen. The unions must protest and march, it’s not just for the unions but for everyone that needs the service.

‘If we get to that stage, industrial action will have to be done.

‘All the unions should come together and fight the cuts.

‘We should get rid of this government if they don’t improve their record.

‘We didn’t vote them to destroy the NHS.

‘We need to get to general strike, otherwise a lot of people are going to suffer.’

Arenay Hatamian told News Line: ‘I’m here with my mother and sister. Me and my sister were born at the Whittington and my friend’s son Dylan was born there.

‘I think they are trying to make it into a glorified health centre and close it down that way – reducing the services to such an extent they can say it’s no longer viable.

‘I’m also here to state my objection to the cuts to the NHS.

‘The reduction in services will have a massive impact on the community.

‘The trade unions should use their powers to defend the NHS and all public services.’

Writer Andy Merriman said: ‘I used to be a social worker at Whittington Hospital for 15 years.

‘I met my wife there and our three sons were born there. It’s a major part of our life, really.

‘My daughter, who has Downs Syndrome, was born there and the paediatrics were just marvellous, supportive and really helped in a time of crisis.

‘My eldest son just had his appendix out there a few months ago. Again, there was amazing treatment.

‘It’s personal and political because it’s a step towards privatisation and dismantling the NHS.

‘I’d support occupying and any direct action to stop hospital closures.

‘The unions should use their strength and take action.’

Unite London Regional Secretary Peter Kavanagh told News Line: ‘Unite is here today to make clear it will support the fight to defend the NHS.

‘Marches alone will not stop this government from dismantling the jewel in our crown; we have to organise in our workplaces.

‘Unite is up for strike action. If workers and local organisations decide on work-ins and occupations are the way forward, Unite will support them.’

Islington Labour MP Emily Thornby told the rally outside the hospital: ‘Whittington Hospital saved my life.

‘Why aren’t we learning the lessons of Mid-Staffs. We can’t let the Whittington become a foundation trust too fast.

‘We can’t provide services if they cut staff.

‘We say “no” to these plans, “no” to Monitor, “no” to the health bill.’

Andy Struthers London Region UCU said: ‘This is ideologically driven, they want to destroy the Welfare State and privatise public services.

‘People hate what they are doing to the NHS, education and benefits.

‘We need to hit back. Our leaders in the Labour Party and the unions have to make it a national strike.’

Whittington hospital consultant Dr Jacky Davis declared: ‘This is my hospital. I have worked here for 30 years.

‘We don’t want this place closed and we are going to fight for it.

‘Mahatma Ghandhi said when a government ignores the people, it’s time to rebel.’

David Webb, Whittington Unison officer, said: ‘We are really concerned about the sell off.

‘If they sell, there’s no going back, there will be no room for health care expansion on this site.

‘We in the health branch would like to ask the board to join us in the fight for a fully-funded service.’

FBU London organiser Ben Sprung brought a message of solidarity and called for support against the closure of fire stations.

Actor Roger Lloyd-Pack said: ‘This is my local hospital. Care in the community is a load of rubbish.

‘It means care less in the community.

‘It’s appalling what they are doing, cutting the nurses’ quarters. Nurses can’t afford to live in London.

‘It’s time to march to get out onto the street to show opposition to this appalling government.’

Islington Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn said: ‘We have told the board we are against the sell-off.

‘Care in the community is not an alternative. Halving beds puts in jeopardy our hospital and the NHS.

‘PFI has come in to bleed the NHS dry.

‘I’m delighted there will be a London-wide demonstration on May 18.

‘I want it to go national. We need the NHS.’

Other speakers included Labour MPs Frank Dobson and David Lammy.