Health workers in Manchester have delivered a stinging rebuke to their management by voting by almost 90 percent to take strike action to defend suspended nurse and Unison union activist Karen Reissmann.
More than 700 union members at the Manchester mental health and social care trust are now set to take part in a series of three-day strikes, the first of which is likely to take place next week.
The strike will affect all in-patient, hospital and community mental health services across the city and will include nurses, admin workers, and occupational therapists.
Karen has been a community psychiatric nurse in Manchester for the past 25 years and is the chair of her Unison branch. She told Socialist Worker that she was “pleasantly surprised” by the size of the vote for strike action.
She said, “I thought that anything over 70 percent would be good. But my workmates aren’t surprised by the strength of the vote – the vast majority have always supported me.”
Just under 50 percent of those balloted voted – in a period when many would be on annual leave.
Responding to the ballot result, Unison regional officer Andy Gill, said, “Trust bosses should take this as an indication of just how angry our members are. We demand that they reverse the suspension of Karen.”
The Manchester community and mental health branch of Unison is one of the best organised in the country. Workers were set to meet to discuss how to build for the strikes as Socialist Worker went to press.
Earlier this year the branch organised successful industrial action, including strikes, against redundancies and downgrading of staff. The action beat back a management offensive designed to help reduce the trust’s £3 million deficit.
A few weeks later Karen was suspended from her job after speaking out against the transfer of NHS jobs and services to the private and voluntary sectors. Her employers said that they had “lost confidence” in her.
Yet it appears that it is workers and service users who have “lost confidence” in their management.
The trust was last week forced into a humiliating climb down on staffing levels on new community mental health teams. Numbers will now increase, in line with the union’s long-stated demand, rather than decrease, as management had previously outlined.
“People were already buoyed up by this news when the result of our ballot came through,” said Karen. “This is a huge victory for us.”
The chaos at the top was further increased last week with the resignation of Frank Margison, the trusts’ medical director, and one of the key figures promoting the reorganisation.
Ben Jackson, a community occupational therapist and Unison steward, told Socialist Worker that there is a general feeling of defiance among workers at the trust.
“The mood on the shop floor is very angry and extremely militant,” he said. “People are absolutely appalled at the way that Karen has been treated, and are determined to take the fight to management. We all feel empowered by the ballot result.
“Management, by contrast, are imploding and many of them are on sick leave.”
Ben believes that supporting Karen is part of defending the NHS, and that it is imperative that NHS employees have a right to speak out when the principles of the health service are being threatened.
He said, “We want to provide quality public services, free of charge, to the people of Manchester. But we are sick of being ripped-off by the government, and being prevented from providing the care that people need.”
Many patients are also backing the campaign to reinstate Karen. The Manchester Users’ Network says that the reorganisation of the trust “has made both patients and staff, as well as the public, distressed, frustrated and terribly anxious”.
It points out that the changes “threaten the most vulnerable”, with an estimated 40 percent of patients having no care plan.
Ben reports that solidarity from other Unison branches has been flowing in, with thousands of pounds arriving in the post daily from trade unionists up and down the country.
Karen’s Unison branch has decided to organise a national demonstration in her support in Manchester on 9 September. Every Unison activist should raise the idea of sending a delegation and branch banner to that march.
Paul Fallon, from Bolton, Salford and Trafford mental health Unison branch, told Socialist Worker, “It is vital that health bosses see a large, vibrant and united response to their attempts to silence the unions.
“We will be publicising the march among our members in every way we can and we want a large contingent behind our banner.
“I would urge every other Unison activist to do the same.”
You can download the union branch’s petition from » supportkarenreissmann.googlepages.com
Send donations and messages of support to the Manchester community and mental health Unison branch, 70 Manchester Road, Manchester M21 9UN. You can also email messages of support to firstname.lastname@example.org