THE FATE of 1.2 million workers hangs in the balance.
New Labour’s Agenda for Change (AfC)—if accepted by workers in a series of ballots set to start this autumn—would place every NHS employee on a new contract.
Some 80 NHS workers from around the country attended a meeting called by the rank and file paper Health Worker in Birmingham last Saturday to discuss their response.
The leaderships of unions representing health workers have been enthusiastic about the scheme.
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, which represents half a million health workers, went as far as sending out a circular claiming the Health Worker conference was in breach of union rules.
Those who attended the meeting heard from workers at some of the 13 sites where AfC is being trialled.
Yunus Bakhsh, who sits on the Unison Health Service Group Executive, introduced the day’s discussion.
He explained how after five years of negotiation there was still no clear picture coming from the unions of what AfC would mean.
A review of the trial sites was supposed to have been published two weeks ago. It has still not been written.
He said, “About 16,000 people on 11 sites are on AfC. They are, in some ways, the easiest to assimilate onto it. But still there are 15 to 16 percent who require ‘protection’.”
“Protection” means that workers are on lower pay after moving to the new contracts.
They have their pay protected at the old level for five years. In practice that means seeing a pay cut each year due to inflation and then a further fall after the five years are up.
Often it is the lowest paid NHS staff who are in that position.
About 200 medical secretaries walked out in Sunderland, where the trial showed that 37 percent of staff would lose out.
Ray McDermott is a Unison branch secretary for ambulance workers in the north east of England.
He spoke at a Unison conference last year to argue strongly in favour of AfC. His experiences have changed his mind.
He told the meeting, “We were shocked when our management told us that under AfC we would no longer be paid for meal breaks. We’ve always been paid during the breaks, because we are on call.
“We won a 94 percent vote for industrial action, which started on 19 June, and are currently in arbitration.”
John, a GMB union member from Sheffield, explained how low paid hospital porters would be hit: “One of the porters I work with is on permanent nights. He would earn £40 a week less under AfC.
“That’s his mortgage payments gone. Our union just keeps telling us, ‘All the problems will be solved’.”
Angela from Cardiff said, “I’m going to be a ‘winner’ if AfC comes in. But I think it’s crucial that people like me say that we will vote against it.
“I simply can’t do my job without the people who will lose out.”
There was a discussion about Health Worker’s strategy ahead of Unison’s special health conference in October and the ballots of NHS workers starting this autumn.
While many activists are already convinced that AfC is a bad deal, most NHS workers are undecided.
Many of those meeting in Birmingham stressed the need to explain the issues to people.
The meeting agreed to print a new issue of Health Worker as soon as possible, to produce a leaflet, and to hold meetings around the country involving NHS workers from different unions.