Alan Milburn's plan to ram through even more privatisation in the NHS sent shock waves through the Unison executive last week. A meeting of the union's health executive was so stunned that its business was suspended to allow people to take stock of Milburn's plan and discuss our response.
'We are now on a war footing' with the government, was how the chair summed up the feeling. People who have been loyal supporters of the government until now were talking of never trusting New Labour again. There had already been uproar on the executive as its meeting began the previous day.
The executive had voted previously to accept three Private Finance Initiative schemes going ahead on the basis that the rest would be put on hold. But it became clear that other hospitals were now out to jump on the bandwagon. Fury at the government over that was followed by more anger when we discussed the system determining health workers' pay. The new scheme the government has been talking about, Agenda for Change, is now not going to be introduced because it isn't prepared to fund it.
But it was as the meeting reconvened the next day with news of Milburn's plan that people's anger hit boiling point. Milburn had made a speech in parliament about the health service. He said hospitals could set their own pay and conditions. This effectively threatens any national pay and conditions negotiations, and amounts to pissing on the union.
The meeting was in uproar and business was suspended to discuss Milburn's statement. Unison's assistant general secretary Bob Abberley and general secretary Dave Prentis had been meeting with Milburn and claimed they were producing results. But, as people said, is this what partnership is?
Now there is discussion taking place on the union executive around organising lobbies, campaigns and local protests. That discussion needs to be acted on.