A swathe of privatisation proposals across the West Midlands have united anti-privatisation campaigners in a determined battle. Dudley Group of Hospitals is at the centre of the plans. Health workers are now on strike to fight the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) scheme that means axing staff, privatising jobs and slashing beds.
In Kidderminster the hospital has been run down. There are PFI schemes planned for Walsall and Wolverhampton, and a PFI hospital to replace two hospitals in Birmingham-Selly Oak and the Queen Elizabeth. This is set to cut 50 beds. Some 95,000 council homes are being transferred to the private sector. Some 30 elderly people's homes face privatisation, as do the fire stations.
'Support for a fightback has been phenomenal,' says Lynne Hubbard, a UNISON shop steward at Selly Oak Hospital. 'People are mobilising to lobby and demonstrate against Gisela Stuart, the New Labour health minister who is totally pro-privatisation.
'Full time officials in the UCATT union are planning meetings to build for this lobby on 3 March. UCATT are so angry about council housing privatisation they want to stand an anti-privatisation candidate in Edgbaston against Gisela Stuart in the general election.'
New Labour is trying to hide the attacks on health provision with its announcement last week that 29 new hospitals will be built. Health secretary Alan Milburn gave the impression that there would be better services and state of the art hospitals.
It is a cruel con. Nearly all the new hospitals will be built under the PFI. Milburn's plans will mean 29 more Dudleys, and will siphon off even more NHS funds into the hands of money-grabbing corporations. The government insisted that the new PFI schemes will mean 3,000 beds for the NHS.
This is a major admission by the government that all the previous PFI schemes have slashed beds. Some 5,000 beds will be axed in the first wave of PFI schemes the government has pushed through. So even if, and it is a big if, the new schemes do result in 3,000 beds, there will still be a net loss of 2,000 beds.
Dudley strikers showed their fury at the government on the lobby of Labour's conference in Glasgow last weekend. Striker Patricia Robbins told Socialist Worker, 'I've been in the NHS for 29 years. I'm a catering worker.
'After nearly eight months of strikes I am even more determined to win this strike than I was at the beginning. The principle is so clear-the NHS should be about public service, not private profit. And PFI is privatisation, however the Labour Party dresses it up. Our union is supposed to have all these contacts with the Labour Party. Well, we've got nothing from it. The ministers are not listening and our own local MPs are telling us to give in. Ordinary people support us-that's what has kept us going.'
Another striker, Jackie Etheridge, said, 'Labour has let us down. That's why we're backing Angela Thompson, one of the strikers, as a Socialist Alliance candidate at the general election.'
'The lobby on 3 March is about uniting all the protests against privatisation. Our campaign to save elderly people's homes, RAGE, has had some brilliant protests including occupying council surgeries. Last week 50 people occupied the road outside one of the homes.'
CAROLINE JOHNSON, Socialist Alliance prospective parliamentary candidate for Perry Barr in Birmingham and secretary of RAGE
'PFI is theft'
Over 100 campaigners packed into a meeting in east London last week to stop a PFI scheme for Barts and the Royal London Hospital. The meeting united health workers, patients, postal workers, teachers, anti-capitalists and community activists in the fight against privatisation.
Geoff Martin, the London regional convenor of the UNISON union, tore into the government's PFI plans, saying, 'Every PFI scheme has reduced beds. Why? Because private firms can only make their profits by cutting back on standards and staffing levels. I recently visited the PFI-built hospital in Dartford in Kent. The walls are flimsy. The place is dirty. The services went pear shaped within weeks of it opening because the private sector consortium wanted to maximise profits for shareholders. Alan Milburn says there will be a net increase of 850 beds in London. But London has lost 10,000 beds in the last ten years. We want a huge campaign for public services provided by public sector workers.'
Dr Kambiz Boomla, Socialist Alliance prospective parliamentary candidate for Poplar and Canning Town and a local GP, also addressed the meeting. He said, 'The Labour Party now says it is PFI or bust. But the majority of people are not buying into that. They are saying we want new hospitals but not built with private money. If we fight we can force the government to publicly fund the building of new hospitals.'
From the floor, Katie, a medical secretary at the Royal London Hospital, said, 'It is not just hospitals. They are doing the same thing to schools, libraries and other services. The money going to these private firms is coming out of our taxes because we pay them back for 30 years while they make a profit. I call that theft.'
A Whitechapel postal worker, who brought the CWU union banner to the meeting, said, 'I find it disgusting that under a Labour government people are expected to suffer the same. Labour cares more about big business than the workers who build and fund the party.'
Local UNISON officer Phil Billows handed over £1,500 from his union branch to the Dudley hospital strikers who spoke at the meeting.
Socialist Alliance and Scottish Socialist Party candidates in the general election will be standing in total opposition to New Labour's privatisation.
- To stop PFI in hospitals, schools, council services and elsewhere.
- To end the privatisation of council housing.
- To stop the privatisation of the London Underground and air traffic control, and threats to privatise the Post Office.
- Against the GATS agreement that gives multinationals a free rein in health, education and elsewhere.
- To renationalise the railways.
- To tax the rich to pay for services.
BIRMINGHAM MARCH AGAINST PRIVATISATION
Support the Dudley strikers
Demonstrate next Saturday 3 March Assemble 10.30am, Chamberlain Square Lobby Gisela Stuart at 12 noon
Organise solidarity events in your local area
Saturday 3 March, 2.30pm Called by the Socialist Alliance