Leading trade unionists from across Greater Manchester joined scores of health workers at a 300-strong meeting last week in support of Karen Reissmann.
She is a psychiatric nurse and leading Unison union activist who is being victimised by her employers for union activities.
The meeting, which launched a ballot for strike action in Karen’s defence, was so crowded that many spilled into the corridors outside the room. There were still more on the street, where an extra loudspeaker carried the speeches from the meeting.
Inside, around 100 of Karen’s workmates, decked out in “defend the NHS” T-shirts, were joined by the majority of Unison’s health executive and delegations from many unions.
They heard from speakers including national representatives from Unison, the journalists’ NUJ union and the communication workers’ CWU union, who all pledged the maximum possible support for Karen.
Everyone agreed that the fight against Karen’s suspension is a critical test of strength for the union – both locally and nationally – and that the implications would be felt throughout the NHS.
Unison’s head of health Karen Jennings drew loud applause as she praised Karen’s Manchester community and mental health branch as one of the best organised in the country.
She said, “The turnout at this extraordinary meeting shows just how strong the sense of solidarity is. And the passion in this room tonight is recognition of Karen’s abilities, both as a nurse and as a trade unionist. Unison is determined to stand by her.”
Karen was suspended from her job after she spoke out against the transfer of NHS services to the private and voluntary sector.
Her employers added new charges when she told people that she had been suspended, and still further charges after she told them she was innocent.
Lilian Macer, chair of Unison’s health executive, said, “In speaking out against the actions of her NHS trust, Karen did what any other trade unionist would do. The way her employers have behaved is completely unacceptable.”
A number of service users spoke at the meeting about why Karen is right to fight health cuts and privatisation.
Chair of Manchester mental health trust users’ group Alan Hartman mocked the idea that Karen had brought her service into “disrepute”.
He told the meeting that many service users have written letters of complaint about Karen’s suspension.
Several trade unionists spoke about the vital role that lay activists play in the trade union movement.
Sharon Green from the PCS civil service workers’ union in Manchester said, “Karen’s branch has been an inspiration to all of us – especially those of us who are under attack – because they have consistently shown that it is possible to fight back.”
Speaking on behalf of the CWU postal workers’ union, regional organiser Ian Taylor told the meeting that even while suspended, Karen had made a point of visiting his members’ picket lines to show solidarity.
Ian told the meeting that Royal Mail management often use suspensions as a means of hampering union activity, and that a suspended rep is often a sign of one who is doing their union job well.
But Ian also delivered a stern warning from his experience. “You must not take your foot of the accelerator for one second,” he said. “Management must not be allowed to regain the initiative.”
Speakers emphasised the role Karen has played in Manchester’s workers’ movement for the last 25 years.
Bartley Willcock came with a delegation from Manchester’s pensioners’ association. “I remember a time before the NHS,” he said. “If you were sick, your parents had to borrow money to get a doctor to see you. That is why the words National Health Service are the three most precious words I know. Karen is defending the NHS, and we never leave one of ours hung out to dry.”
As Karen rose to address the meeting the audience were already on their feet to give her a standing ovation.
Karen said that the trust were attacking her as a means of attacking the union, and that was because the union was the only thing standing in the way of the £3.5 million cuts the trust wants to make.
Karen spoke about the importance of winning the ballot with a large majority, and of taking strike action.
After the meeting a number of workers told Socialist Worker that since Karen’s suspension, the trust is attempting to ram through changes to terms and conditions, without discussion with the union.
Management are also trying to create an atmosphere of fear. “Managers take notes as we go around talking to union members. Then they check whether we have booked leave at that time,” says union activist Pat Gallagher. “But that just makes people angrier.”
Occupational therapist Tracey Cope said, “With so many cuts, there is a lot of fear at work. But this meeting has really buoyed us. I am sure we’ll get a big yes in the ballot.”
Manchester community and mental health Unison branch has called a demonstration in support of Karen on Saturday 8 September in Manchester.
Download » the union branch’s petition. Donations and messages of support to the Manchester community and mental health Unison branch, 70 Manchester Road, Manchester M21 9UN. Email messages of support to [email protected]