Trade unionists and health campaigners from across Britain demonstrated in Manchester on Saturday of last week to demand the reinstatement of nurse Karen Reissmann, who was sacked last month for speaking out against cuts and privatisation.
The demonstration came at a crucial point in the dispute.Karen's appeal against dismissal is scheduled for 3 December. Unison, her union, is calling a day of solidarity two days later.
Police say the Manchester march was attended by over 1,500 people. It was a sea of colour, with more than 50 banners from a wide range of unions, including Unite, CWU, FBU, NUT, PCS and RMT.
Karen is chair of Unison's Manchester community and mental health branch and a member of the union's national health executive.
Her sacking has sent a shockwave through Unison and beyond. It represents a fundamental attack on freedom of speech and the freedom to organise. It is a threat to every trade unionist and to everyone who uses public services.
Around 150 mental health workers at the trust where Karen has worked for the past 25 years are now in their fourth week of indefinite strike action, demanding that she is reinstated.
'It's vitally important that we came to this protest,' Tam Waterson, the chair of Unison's Scottish health committee, told Socialist Worker. 'If they can get away with this in Manchester, no trade unionist will be safe.'
Mick McGahey, a Unison branch secretary at Lothian primary care trust, agrees. 'This needs to be a political as well as an industrial fight,' he said.
'With so many on strike, clearly the industrial side is going well. Now I want to see the union's Labour Link organisation getting to work on this one – I want every Unison sponsored MP to be raising this issue in parliament.'
Unison's assistant general secretary Bob Abberley spoke at the rally, pledging Karen the full support of her national union.
A group of strikers from Glasgow day centre also joined the demonstration. Sobia told Socialist Worker that they had come to show their solidarity.
'We are in the same kind of struggle – though ours is directly over cuts in services and staff salaries,' she said. 'It's obvious we should stand together.'
The Manchester strikers responded by handing a cheque for £500 from their branch towards the Glasgow dispute – despite the intense pressure on their own funds.
It emerged last week that the strike action by community teams is putting the Manchester trust under massive pressure, with ward-based staff saying the service is 'close to breaking point'.
Socialist Worker has seen a letter from Dr Judy Harrison, who chairs the trust's medical committee, which was sent to trust boss Sheila Foley last week.
It says, 'Crises are increasingly being dealt with by on-call doctors and social workers and via accident and emergency... as there are no viable community alternatives. We urge the trust to explore all avenues to achieve a resolution to the current dispute.'
But Foley has responsed by lashing out at striking staff. Last week she tried to get striking nurses and occupational therapists 'struck off' – but was forced to back down after being told that professional staff have a right to withdraw their labour.
The strike regularly appears on the front page of the Manchester Evening News and has split opinion in the local Labour Party.
Some prominent Labour councillors have attacked the strikers, but Tony Lloyd MP has made clear his support for Karen. He told the rally, 'Karen is my constituent, but I am not here in that capacity. I am here because there is a basic trade union principle at stake.
'That principle is the right for an active trade union to speak out about what's happening in a public service that we own.'
Karen's appeal against her sacking starts on Monday 3 December. The best way to help win back her job is to make the day of action on Wednesday 5 December a huge success.
Unison is asking trade unionists to organise rallies and protests on the day to raise awareness and money for the strike.
The Manchester dispute must become such a touchstone in the trade union movement that health secretary Alan Johnson is forced to act and order the trust to reinstate Karen.
Rush donations and speaker requests to the Manchester community and mental health Unison branch, 70 Manchester Road, M21 9UN. Go to » www.reinstate-karen.org
Email messages of protest to Alan Johnson, secretary of state for health, at firstname.lastname@example.org