Mental health workers in Manchester, who are demanding the reinstatement of their union branch chair Karen Reissmann, remain defiant after deciding to suspend their strike.
The dispute raises vital questions about why, under a Labour government, trade unionists in the public sector can be driven out of their jobs for speaking out against cuts and privatisation of services – and why MPs and government ministers continue to allow it to happen.
Karen’s suspension from work on charges of gross misconduct led to 700 workers taking 14 days of strike action.
Bosses at her NHS trust admit that Karen’s only crime was to “bring the trust into disrepute” by attacking their reorganisation plans.
Following Karen’s sacking at the beginning of last month, 150 workers in community-based teams have been on indefinite strike.
The union’s campaign, which united health workers with service users and the public, mobilised Unison members in a way that no other campaign has done for years.
Many who had not previously regarded themselves as “activists” or “political” discovered new strengths. They played a central role in the organisation of the dispute and addressed meetings up and down the country – winning solidarity and unprecedented financial support.
While the fight galvanised massive support among trade unionists in the north west of England, it has polarised the Labour Party in the region.
Local MP Tony Lloyd and some constituency parties vigorously support Karen, while some leading Labour councillors in Manchester regularly write letters to newspapers attacking her.
Strikers returned to work on Monday of this week but they are determined that their campaign is far from over. They feel angry, frustrated and bitter that for the moment Karen remains sacked.
The whole branch will now campaign hard up to the formal employment tribunal hearing into whether Karen was unfairly dismissed for her trade union activities. This is likely to commence in the middle of 2008, though campaigning will continue beyond that if necessary.
Nevertheless, the strike has already won some important gains – including a commitment to look again at planned changes to the mental health services in the city that would mean massive cuts and a swathe of job losses.
“The mood here is one of anger mixed with pride about the way we have fought back,” Karen told Socialist Worker. “Most strikers agree that we must change our strategy now that the appeal process has been exhausted.
“There is also a real sense that we have been vindicated. As part of the return to work agreement, bosses at the trust have accepted there must be an urgent review of their reorganisation plans, known as Change In Mind.”
As if to acknowledge the workers’ claim that mental health services are drastically underresourced, bosses have also agreed that additional staff and beds, brought in during the strike, will remain in place – and will be reviewed again at the end of January.
In a further sign of bosses’ desperation to end the strike, they have agreed that neither Karen, nor any other striker, will be referred to their professional body – an action that could lead to workers being “struck off”.
This was won despite the fact that Sheila Foley, the trust’s chief executive, had previously insisted that she might pursue both Karen and other strikers in this way.
Many believe that the trust bosses dismissed Karen in the hope that union organisation would be severely weakened, making it unable to resist further cuts. If that was their hope, it has badly backfired.
“Union organisation is stronger than ever,” says Karen. “Rather than making an example of me – one which would serve to intimidate others into passivity – the strike encouraged more people to pick up the union’s banner, and strikers are going back with seven new stewards and scores of new activists.
“It’s management not the union which is seriously wounded.”
Meanwhile the Manchester mental health users’ network, a body that represents patients and carers at the trust, is so outraged by the way the trust has conducted itself that it declared “no confidence” in the trust’s board of directors.
In a letter that followed a stormy meeting between the group and chair of the trust Wyn Dignan, the users have demanded the resignation of all the directors and a full public enquiry into the state of mental health services in Manchester.
The tremendous fight put up in Manchester has forced Unison’s national leadership to take up the fight in a serious way.
Following the strikers’ demand for a national campaign over Karen’s sacking, Unison general secretary Dave Prentis last week promised that, in addition to the union’s full support during Karen’s employment tribunal, he would seek to raise the issue at an urgent meeting with health secretary Alan Johnson.
Unison has also agreed that a full briefing on Karen’s case will be sent to all Unison-sponsored MPs. They will be asked to support an early day motion defending her and defending the right of health trade unionists to speak out against cuts and privatisation.
In addition the union is committed to raising the case at the national NHS joint staff council, and is condsidering a national lobby of parliament around the time of the three-month anniversary of Karen’s sacking.
Strikers say they will organise a branch-wide strike of all 700 workers on the day so that they can all join the protest.
In a sign of how the dispute has already become a focus for health workers across Britain, Karen’s union branch has received a phenomenal £200,000 in donations during the course of the strike.
“This week we received £10,000 from health workers in Edinburgh, £5,000 from Southampton and £1,610 from Liverpool,” says Karen.
That so many large donations have been sent, despite the initial phase of strike action coming to an end, reflects the fact that there is still a fight on to save Karen’s job.
It is vital that trade unionists and health campaigners continue to rally around Karen and the Manchester mental health workers, until their richly deserved victory is achieved.
Send donations and messages of support to Manchester Community and Mental Health branch Unison, Chorlton House, 70 Manchester Rd, Manchester M21 9UN, or email [email protected]