Leaders of the giant public sector UNISON union hailed a deal they struck with the government over the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) last week. The union claims the deal is a victory which will stop thousands of health workers having their jobs transferred to private companies.
UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said, 'It marks a major step forward in protecting our members and keeping them where they belong-in the NHS.' But the deal is a betrayal of the fight against privatisation.
It gives the government the green light to push through its next round of PFI deals, which will see the biggest ever privatisation of the health service. The deal means the government will go ahead with three PFI 'pilot' schemes- in Roehampton, Havering and Stoke Mandeville-where some staff will stay as NHS employees.
The government then intends to implement similar plans for a further 38 PFI hospitals. The government originally announced the three pilot schemes six months ago as a concession to UNISON. This was a testament to the nine month long strikes of Dudley hospitals workers to stop their jobs being sold off to a private contractor. The strike was unsuccessful and the workers' jobs were sold off. But the strikes, and the support they won, showed the government there was widespread opposition to privatisation.
UNISON leaders quite rightly stopped the pilot schemes going ahead for six months because the government insisted that many workers would still be transferred to the private sector. But the new deal is little better. Thousands of NHS staff will still be privatised.
Only five groups of workers will be allowed to stay as NHS workers-cleaners, porters, catering staff, laundry workers and security staff. Even among these groups some 15 percent will still have their jobs transferred to private companies.
The government claims these are people with a 'management role'. But they will include any ancillary worker who has supervisory duties or is defined as a 'team leader'. Other sections of workers will still be privatised.
These include medical records, medical secretaries, IT staff, sterile supplies, switchboard workers, hospital engineers, receptionists and parking attendants. Moreover, the private companies running PFI schemes will retain overall control of all non-medical staff.
That means private companies can still slash jobs. This is what has happened in every PFI scheme so far, with up to a quarter of workers losing their jobs. Private companies will also be allowed to employ as many casual staff as they want to fill in vacancies or staff shortages.
This could open up the door to a massive casualisation of work in the NHS. Contractors will also be able to push through changes to workers' hours and shifts. That gives them a free hand to introduce longer and more unsociable shifts. The deal does not allow already privatised staff to be brought back into the NHS.
It means a two tier NHS, with some staff on second class wages and conditions. No wonder the Business Services Association (a conglomorate of private contractors) has accepted the government's position.
As Mark New, branch secretary of UNISON at the Dudley Group of Hospitals and NEC member says, 'If Dudley workers had accepted such a deal, we would be in a worse position than we are now. We were transferred out of the NHS. But at least our action meant we won NHS terms and conditions for everyone. We want to fight for all of us to be brought back to the NHS.'
UNISON leaders' decision to accept the deal (by 20 votes to eight on the union's health executive) has undermined principled opposition to PFI. It will also weaken the union's anti-privatisation campaign, which it relaunched last week. The union is now putting on adverts in cinemas and elsewhere declaring that '83 percent' of people are opposed to hospitals and schools being run by private companies.
UNISON leaders have also joined with John Monks and leaders of the TUC to call a rally and lobby of parliament next Tuesday in defence of public services. UNISON leaders are quite right to relaunch their anti-privatisation campaign. But they should have looked to the power of that 83 percent to carry out a principled campaign against PFI.
We need to make the lobby next Tuesday against privatisation as big and angry as possible-both to tell the government to stop privatising our services and to let our union leaders know that we want to kick private companies out of the NHS completely.
CELEBRATE PUBLIC SERVICES
Rally and lobby of parliament Tuesday 4 December, 12.30pm, Westminster Central Hall, London SW1 (Westminster tube) Called by UNISON and TUC