The battle to defend Karen Reissmann, the psychiatric nurse and health service union activist, is set to reach a critical stage this week as her Unison union starts a ballot for strike action in her defence.
Karen led a successful strike against cuts at Manchester Community and Mental Health NHS trust earlier this year.
She was suspended from work after she spoke out against the handing of services to the private and voluntary sectors.
She is one of the best known trade unionists in the country, and serves as the chair of her union branch and sits on the national union’s health executive.
It is clear that trust bosses believe that the union is the main obstacle to their plans to make £3 million worth of “savings” this year.
They believe that the union will be significantly weakened without Karen to help lead it.
If the ballot is succesful, Unison is planning a rolling strategy of three-day strikes that will involve the entire branch of over 700 members in Karen’s defence.
That means that ward-based nurses, admin staff and secretaries will join community psychiatric nurses and occupational therapists on big picket lines that will bring the entire health trust to a halt.
Ben Jackson, who is a Unison steward at the trust, told Socialist Worker that the mood for action at the trust could not be more solid.
Ben said, “There is an extremely militant atmosphere here, and it is present in every section meeting we hold – whether we are talking to secretaries, nurses or therapists.
“The feeling even extends to some of the junior managers. People are just outraged at what the trust is trying to do to Karen.
“It is clear that the trust is out to get her. It has even authorised someone to photocopy all her clinical casework in an effort to find some pretext for sacking her.
“That is making people even more angry. Everybody knows how good Karen is at her job, and that she speaks out because she is determined to defend the service we provide.
“People here are just itching for a chance to hit back.”
Other workers at the trust told Socialist Worker that chief executive Sheila Foley was last week forced to send out a memo to all staff about Karen’s suspension.
She claimed that the memo was issued “following reports from a number of our staff regarding confusing messages which are circulating around the organisation”.
In the memo she acknowledged the strength of feeling over the issue and claimed that there was no intention to break the union. However, the letter did nothing to alleviate people’s concerns. Instead it served to heighten the tension.
“Most people believe that Karen is being stitched up, and that it is all a pre-planned act,” said Ben. “There is a feeling that the trust has been waiting for an opportunity to get her for a while.”
The support for Karen from trade unionists across the country has been as solid as it is among her colleagues.
Karen told Socialist Worker that every day brings new messages of solidarity and pledges of financial support to her branch strike fund.
“I’ve had hundreds of letters from trade unionists that my branch has supported in the past,” she said. “But I’ve also found support in places that are completely new to me.”
One of those is the writer Paul Abbott, the creator of the TV series Shameless. He wrote a letter of complaint about Karen’s suspension to the chief executive of the trust.
In it he attacked the manner in which Karen was suspended.
He wrote, “I hear, with disbelief, that you served this suspension during a session with a highly vulnerable patient, forbidding her with immediate effect, from contact with patients, including the woman expecting and waiting for her to return to the session.
“This disgraceful example of management, alone, renders charges of ‘misconduct’ against Karen Reissmann particularly ironic.” Paul ends his stinging rebuke with the words, “I implore you to reinstate Karen Reissmann immediately.”
A gig to raise money for the strike fund on Friday of last week was packed out by over 200 people – both from the trust and from local trade unions – and raised over £500.
The ballot for strike action is going to be launched at a major rally, which was set to take place on Wednesday of this week.
Lillian Macer, chair of Unison’s health executive, and Karen Jennings, Unison’s head of health, were both to address the rally.
The strike ballot is set to begin on Thursday of this week. “I’ve got no doubts that we are going to win this ballot,” said Ben.
“But having such high profile backers is really going to help the campaign.
“The local newspapers and TV have already told us that they will be coming.
“And we know the turnout from staff will be fantastic because even people with no ties to the union have been photocopying our leaflets and giving them out.
“It all goes to show that if our management think that they can get away with this, then they have completely misunderstood what Karen, the union, and the NHS mean to people who work at the trust.
“This is more than just defending our branch chair. This is about defending the NHS.”
Sign the union branch’s petition demanding Karen’s reinstatement at » www.swp.org.uk/resources/reissmann_050707.pdf and take it round your workplace. Send messages of support to the Manchester community and mental health Unison branch office, 70 Manchester Road, Manchester M21 9UN.
Email messages of suppport to firstname.lastname@example.org