The ambulance dispute, 1989 - The Red Menace

Article attempting to link up the 1989-1990 London ambulance workers' dispute with that of council, construction and hospital workers.

Submitted by Spassmaschine on August 11, 2009

Now the police won't just put you in hospital, they'll drive you there too
As we go to press the ambulance dispute is in its 4th month. Having escalated their action from an overtime ban to answering only 999 and emergency calls, some crews (notably those in London) are now refusing to answer any calls from central control. They are dealing only with emergency calls made directly to stations by the public or hospitals. In various parts of the country crews have been suspended and the army and the police are running a limited ambulance service.

Clearly it is necessary for ambulance workers to escalate their own action. Support is growing for an all out strike: at Isleworth, Twickenham, and Feltham stations in West London crews are already on virtual strike, refusing to answer any calls official or unofficial. With management cutting off phones to stations (as they have done in Dorset and Birmingham), other stations may have little choice but to follow suit. The real key to winning this dispute though is all out action by other groups of workers too.

The potential for this has been shown already. On December 6th, council workers (in Hackney and Hammersmith), construction workers (including 300 steel erectors on the Canary Wharf site) and hospital workers (at the Elizabeth Garret Anderson in Soho) were among those in London who took unofficial strike action for the day in support of the ambulance crews. Previously bus workers at Hanwell garage (West London) and workers at Homerton and St Bartholomew’s hospitals took token action. In addition many other workers have been involved in demonstrating, collecting money and organising ambulance support groups. Ambulance people have also made links with strikers elsewhere- in Luton they joined car workers’ picket lines at Vauxhall.

The main obstacle to any escalation of the dispute is the unions. Having originally recommended acceptance of the initial 6.5% pay offer, their main tactic has been to focus activity around useless petitions and calls for arbitration (i.e. a negotiated deal falling well short of the 11.4% rise demanded). Already they have publicly abandoned demands for a cut in the working week and longer holidays.

Roger Poole, chief union negotiator, has bluntly stated: "we don"t want solidarity strikes from other workers". In November the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) even refused to allow any non-ambulance workers on a demonstration in Manchester, and they are hoping to do the same on the TUC-sponsored march on January 13th. At all sorts of union meetings workers have been told that solidarity can’t be discussed as it constitutes illegal secondary action. For instance at the London Hospital (Whitechapel), NUPE branch officials refused to allow an ambulance worker to speak at a meeting of other health workers.

Those who still believe that they can rely on the unions for support should remember what happened when ambulance workers tried to speak to NUPE leader Rodney Bickerstaffe at the TUC (Trades Union Congress) headquarters: he called security guards to throw them out. Not daring to be seen to do nothing however NUPE have called a ‘day of action’ to coincide with the January 13th demo - on a Saturday! And union leaders are also considering asking other workers to stage periods of silence (lasting between 5 and 15 minutes) to show their support!

Ambulance crews and their supporters need to talk directly to other workers and argue that they should strike, not just out of sympathy but in their own interests. At Canary Wharf, ambulance workers not only spoke to steel erectors before December 6th but also turned up on the day to make sure they stood by their decision to strike; for construction workers the lack of a decent ambulance service on the streets is a clear threat to their health and safety. On the same day Hammersmith council workers linked up support for the ambulance crews with support for the’ council’s own striking nursery workers. It is this sort of activity that could lay the groundwork for a united strike movement around all our needs.

The Red Menace, Number 5, January 1990. Taken from the Practical History website.