Socialist Worker

A key moment for all health workers

Jim Fagan, branch secretary of Tower Hamlets healthcare Unison branch, says government plans for the NHS should be opposed

Issue No. 1919

IN OCTOBER 450,000 health workers in Unison will be balloted on Agenda for Change following a special conference on 7 October.

Agenda for Change is the biggest change in our pay and conditions since the foundation of the NHS.

For the last year Agenda for Change has been piloted in a number of different hospital trusts. These pilots revealed that shocking numbers of workers would lose out and need their pay protecting.

In Sunderland up to 37 percent of the workforce were to lose out—prompting around 200 staff to walk out.

In West Lothian, Scotland, a paper exercise revealed that 36.8 percent would require pay protection. Among some of the lowest paid workers this rose to 50 percent.

The deal was unravelling under its own terms because no more than 8 percent of the workforce were supposed to lose out.

Even this 8 percent would have meant about 80,000 NHS workers losing out—far too many. The New Labour government has made major concessions to try and get its agreement accepted.

The introduction of new lower rates of pay for working unsocial hours, which would have been a major cause of workers being worse off, has been postponed until April 2006. This will be reviewed in December 2005.

The second major concession is a rise in the minimum rate of pay to £5.69 an hour, which will benefit a significant number of ancillary staff.

Combined with the increase in annual leave and a reduction in the working week for some staff, this means that in effect most nursing, paramedic and ancillary staff will see improvements in pay and conditions under Agenda for Change.

The service group executive for health in Unison has voted by 25 to ten to recommend acceptance of the deal.

But many health workers have questions and remain sceptical.

At the London regional health committee, which up until now was positive about Agenda for Change, 12 delegates voted to recommend acceptance, with only five voting against but with a further six abstaining.

Union branch meetings in Tower Hamlets voted to mandate their delegates at the special conference to vote against the proposals, for the following reasons.

  • There will still be significant numbers of losers, especially among admin and clerical workers.

  • The increase in the minimum hourly rate, whilst welcome, falls short of Unison’s policy for at least £7 per hour minimum wage.

  • There will be an increase in the working week for thousands of members. Agenda for Change brings with it performance-related pay. Foundation hospitals will have additional freedoms to vary terms and conditions.

  • New Labour is committed to expanding foundation hospitals, so this would lead to the complete fragmentation of the NHS pay structure.

  • The government’s retreat on unsocial hours payments will lead to an increase to the annual pay bill. The employers claim they have not put in extra funding. So where is the money to come—cuts in services?

    Underlying all of this is the question of trust. Can we trust New Labour? It reneged on a pay deal with the firefighters’ union, and it has kept the option of coming back on the offensive over unsocial hours after the next general election.

    The changes in Agenda for Change were made because of resistance from rank and file health workers.

    Unofficial action in Sunderland and the north east ambulance strike that secured paid meal breaks meant that the union leaders and government knew they couldn’t sell Agenda for Change without some modifications.

    A no vote in the ballot would be the best guarantee of more and firmer concessions. A big no vote would be a sign of resistance to any future attacks and leave union branches better placed to defend their members.

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    Article information

    Sat 18 Sep 2004, 00:00 BST
    Issue No. 1919
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