THE PRESS has suddenly picked up that Tony Blair is going to get a rough ride trying to push his 'modernisation' proposals through the health service. The Guardian ran a front page story on New Year's Eve headlined 'Pay Rebuff Threatens NHS Reform'. It reported the growing opposition to the government's proposed new pay package for health workers, Agenda for Change.
According to the paper a senior official in Unison, the biggest health union, 'admitted that initial briefings among officials suggested the proposals were in deep trouble.' The government says the new pay system will address health workers' complaints about low and unequal pay.
But it is clear that it will mean worse pay and conditions for many NHS workers. Even the Department of Health admits that one in 12 health workers could end up being paid less. Some estimates say one in six health workers will lose out. The Department of Health boasts that the package will squeeze an extra 65 million hours a year from health workers through increased hours and more 'productivity'.
As Yunus Bakhsh, a socialist on the national executive of the Unison union, explains: 'Health workers have three main objections to Agenda for Change. One: there are losers in this deal. Substantial numbers of health workers will have their working week increased, will not get pay rises and could lose out through changes to enhanced hour payments. Two: the whole package is tied to a paltry 10 percent rise over three years, which works out at just 3.2 percent a year. Three:there is anger over foundation hospitals. How can we have a new national pay deal if at the same time the government is setting up elite hospitals which can set their own pay and conditions?'
The Guardian reports that 'resistance is strong from low paid ancilliary staff who rely heavily on overtime and weekend working.' Agenda for Change introduces a £5.17 minimum wage. Some of the lowest paid health staff entitled to that could find themselves worse off.
Agenda for Change will mean nothing for workers already privatised. Anger against low pay among ancilliary workers has exploded into action in several NHS trusts-in Glasgow, Inverclyde, Liverpool and Swansea. By taking strike action, in some cases unofficial, workers have won improved pay.
Ancilliary health workers in five trusts in east London are about to start a consultative ballot on whether to take strike action over low pay against their private contractors. The government wants to railroad Agenda for Change through.
The first pilot schemes are due in April-before the unions have even had time to consult their members. The Unison union is to hold a special conference on Agenda for Change during its health conference in April and then put it out to ballot. The government has still not produced many of the details of the package. The rank and file paper Health Worker has called an important meeting in Birmingham on Saturday 1 February.
It is open to all health workers. It will be the only forum in which activists from all NHS unions will be able to get together to discuss the issue.
Health Worker Agenda for Change meeting: What it is? Where will it leave us? Do we need an alternative? Saturday 1 February, 1pm-4pm, United Services Club, Gough Street, Birmingham B1 1HN.