Socialist Worker

Workers ready to fight health service cuts

by Yuri Prasad
Issue No. 2036

Protesting in Brent against cuts that will savage services (Pic: Harrow Observer)

Protesting in Brent against cuts that will savage services (Pic: Harrow Observer)

The momentum is building for protests across Britain on 3 March in defence of the NHS – with activists meeting, lobbying, petitioning and marching.

Health workers in Manchester were set to strike on Wednesday of this week in defence of jobs and services.

In Waltham Forest, east London, a vibrant local campaign is preparing for a demonstration this Saturday to demand that services at the Whipps Cross hospital be maintained.

In South Yorkshire campaigners are planning action to protect Sheffield Children's Hospital from £9 million worth of cuts.

And at Hinchingbrooke hospital in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, health workers and the public are building for a protest rally on 17 February.

A packed meeting in Brent, north west London, on Wednesday of last week, provided a snapshot of the anger that is found in every part of Britain.

Some 150 people, nearly half of them local health workers, crammed into the meeting to protest against cuts to local health provision.

At the Central Middlesex hospital in Park Royal and the Northwick Park hospital in Harrow up to 500 health workers will lose their jobs over the next year.

Brent Teaching primary care trust has announced a cost cutting package that will decimate local services for some of the most vulnerable people.

Health visitors, school nurses and district nurses are among those who have been told that they will have reapply for jobs in the reduced service. 'We play a critical role in preventative public health,' said school nurse Marie Sheppard.

'We are the people who check your children's hearing and eyesight. We screen children for diseases like TB, which if untreated could destroy their lives. Yet management say that three quarters of us are going to lose our jobs.'

Paul Welch is the branch secretary of Brent Health Unison. He told Socialist Worker, 'The excellent turnout at the protest meeting has really helped to lift our spirits.'

Pauline Latchem from the Royal Association for Deaf People attended the meeting. She told Socialist Worker that the cuts in Brent will hit people with disabilities particularly hard.

'Patients at a specialist unit that helps deaf people with mental health problems have been told that they will be moved to a mainstream unit. But the staff there won't be able to communicate with the deaf patients' she said.

Jean is a health visitor who has worked in the NHS for more than 25 years. Despite being employed directly by Brent primary care trust for the last four years as bank staff (a form of short term contract), she was made redundant and given just ten minutes notice to clear her desk.

'I feel strongly about what I do, so I carried on coming in to work for the next two days just to make sure that all the child protection cases I look after were properly handed on,' she says.

'I want to know how our management can claim to be running a caring service when they don't even care for their staff,' she said.

Unison's Paul Welch said,. 'At the meeting, we suggested that we should have a march in Brent on 3 March.'

'We are going to end our demonstration outside the new Wembley Stadium which is opening that day,' Paul adds.

Now the local council has been forced to back the protest in the hope of pressurising the government to give Brent extra funding.

'Up to now health workers have put up with rubbish,' says Paul. 'Rubbish buildings, rubbish heating, rubbish conditions and rubbish pay.

'There is a feeling that we are going to have to take strike action to defend those whose jobs are being axed. I think it's time we showed them that we won't take any more rubbish'.

How to build an NHS meeting

Sarah Cox was one of the activists who initiated the campaign against the health cuts in Brent, north west London. She spoke to Socialist Worker about how the meeting came about.

As the scale of the cuts became clear, a handful of us met with the chair and secretary of the Brent trades council. We had also been in touch with the chair of the hospitals' Unison branch to see if we could organise a public meeting.

The next day we contacted our local MPs. Two out of the three came on board.

Although we only had a few contacts among health trade unionists, we did know many people from our campaigning against the war in Iraq and around recent elections. Everyone we approached about the meeting could see that we had a serious platform.

We started to tap into a number of different networks. The trades council mailed all its supporters and we distributed leaflets at the local pensioners' forum.

In addition we found a whole network of organisations in the voluntary sector that were appalled at the way the cuts would impact upon vulnerable people. They played a very important role in building the meeting.

At the same time the trusts were holding meetings across north west London to plan their strategy for the future.

A health worker who lives locally went to the first meeting and attacked the trust's presentation. She found others who agreed to help build our protest meeting.

Finally we went into doctors' surgeries, chemists, health centres and community centres and asked them to display posters to advertise the meeting.

We created a real atmosphere around the meeting and that is why I think it was a success.

The lesson we can take from this is that you can still build a campaign even if the scale of the cuts you are facing is enormous and the numbers of people you have around you are very small to start with.

I think our demonstration in Wembley is going to be just the start. Hopefully we can be part of putting pressure on the leaders of the trade unions to call a national demonstration that can capture the willingness to fight cuts right across the country.

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