Ambulance worker who couldn't get to emergency for three hours says they must strike

Ambulance worker Simon Day says he will never forget responding to an emergency call during a strike.

“A 93-year-old woman had had a fall during a strike,” he remembers. “I apologised for how long it had taken us to get to her – because we are always sorry that people aren’t getting the response they need. She replied: ‘Keep going. Because when you win, we win’.”

On Saturday Simon, 51, who now works as a Clinical Team Mentor Paramedic in the West Midlands, will address a once-in-a-generation ‘Special Congress’ at the TUC’s headquarters in London. Alongside him will be representatives from trade unions whose members stand to lose the right to strike under undemocratic new laws.

The last special Congress took place over 40 years ago in 1982 – back then, to fight Margaret Thatcher’s anti-union legislation. Now, the TUC says the union movement – and the country – is once again in “exceptional circumstances” – given the “unprecedented attack on the right to strike”.

The government has said it will bring in “minimum service levels” in rail, the ambulance service and border security. Ministers are also consulting on rules affecting further workers in hospitals, schools, universities and fire services. The TUC says these laws mean that when workers lawfully vote to strike, they could be forced to attend work – and sacked if they don’t comply. The changes could see one in five workers in Britain – or 5.5 million people – lose the right to strike, according to TUC research.

ambulance worker who couldn't get to emergency for three hours says they must strike

Train driver Dawn says it just won’t work

“On Saturday, unions will be discussing how we take on these spiteful new laws,” says Paul Nowak, TUC General Secretary. “These new Conservative anti- strike laws are unworkable, undemocratic and likely in breach of international law. They represent an unprecedented attack on the right to strike – and they’ll poison industrial relations and drag out disputes. Labour gets this. That’s why they have done the right thing and promised to repeal this nasty legislation at the earliest opportunity. And it’s why employers, politicians and civil society groups are queuing up to oppose this legislation. The UK already has some of the most restrictive trade union laws in Europe. Now the Tories want to make it even harder for people to win fair pay and conditions.”

Simon, a member of the GMB union, finds the idea of ‘Minimum Service Levels’ (MSLs) bitterly ironic given ambulance and A&E waiting times.

“At the moment we can’t offer Minimum Service Levels,” he says. “We’d love to be able to, but we can’t. Just this week we responded to a Category 2 call –the response time for that should be 18 minutes but we were three hours. I’d like to ask this government – where are the minimum service levels for the four million children living in poverty in the UK? Where is the minimum service level for patients and for those of us working in the NHS? That’s what the strikes are about.”

Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner have made it clear a Labour government would reverse the anti-strike legislation – setting a clear dividing line between their party and the Conservatives on workers’ rights. “You can’t legislate your way out of 13 years of failure,” Starmer has said of the new law. “Will we repeal it? Yes, we will.”

ambulance worker who couldn't get to emergency for three hours says they must strike

Paul Nowak says laws will poison industrial relations

Michelle Codrington-Rogers, 45, a member of NASUWT, teaches at a large secondary school in Oxfordshire. “I teach Citizenship so I’m having to talk to children about a government that’s trying to abolish the right to strike,” she says. “Teachers never want to strike. When we do, the first thing we do is look at the lessons we’ll miss and think of the children. Industrial action is just one part of trying to protect the children we teach.”

Jeff, who can’t be named because of his frontline job in the Border Control Force, says his union, PCS, recently surveyed 190,000 members. “Over 40,000 were in receipt of in-work benefits,” he says. “Ironically, some of those are working for the DWP administering benefits and they need them to survive themselves.” Dawn Stewart, 51, is a train driver working for Thameslink in mid-Beds. She says minimum service levels for the rail sector will mean running a 40 per cent service.

ambulance worker who couldn't get to emergency for three hours says they must strike

Teacher and union member Michelle Codrington-Rogers

“For us to do that, we need 60-70% of staff to be working,” she says. “That means you’re restricting the right to strike of almost three-quarters of your workforce.

“How do you decide who works? It will create so much division. How will we cope safely with overcrowding on minimal services? You have to redo timetables, and services have to fit and cross over with other services. It just isn’t workable in our sector. The Rail Delivery Group and the companies don’t want it either, so the government isn’t listening to the industry at all.”

ambulance worker who couldn't get to emergency for three hours says they must strike

Sir Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner

The government claims the new laws “will not prevent a union from organising industrial action,” and will protect public safety. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said the “right to strike has to be balanced with the right of the British public to be able to go about their lives without suffering completely undue disruption.”

For Dawn Stewart the volume of strikes facing the government is not a reason for new legislation, but shows how much the country is suffering. “The fact there are so many workers, from so many sectors, having to strike tells you that it’s the government at fault, not the workers,” she says.

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