UNISON health conference
Hazel Croft reports from Harrogate
THERE WAS an angry mood among the 800 people attending the health conference of public sector union UNISON last week. The anger was directed at the New Labour government and the executive of UNI- SON's health group. Union leaders were clearly taken aback by the hammering they received on the first morning of the conference.
Delegate after delegate queued up to attack the leadership's betrayal of hundreds of thousands of NHS staff not covered by the Pay Review Bodies. Last November the leadership called off a planned industrial action ballot among ancillary, admin and clerical, technical and administration, and ambulance staff for talks with the government.
The result was a rotten three year pay deal of 3 percent a year. Shirley Tastie from Nottingham summed up the anger when she said, to a huge round of applause: "Our leadership seem to be afraid of challenging the government over anything in the NHS. If the founders of the trade union movement had behaved in this way there would never have been a movement. We'll be a voiceless, futureless and memberless union unless we make a stand and fight now."
Pointing at the executive on the top table, Frank Doraine from the South West Region said, "Is low pay here to stay? It is if this lot don't get off their arses and start fighting for their members and stop pandering to this government."
Speakers from the executive were heckled when they tried to justify the sell out. "The reality of life is that you don't always get what you want," said executive member Dave Godson to some jeers. Chair of the executive Lesley Fisher tried to justify calling off the ballot after making a few phone calls to some members of the executive.
But Yunus Bakhsh from Newcastle was cheered to the rafters when he replied, "The key phone call came from Number Ten, telling the people sitting up there to call off the action.
"The executive's first allegiance is to the New Labour government, but it should be to all of us." Head of health Bob Abberley only deepened the anger by replying, "If only I was powerful enough to get a phone call from Tony Blair. UNISON is not powerful enough. We got the best deal we could."
On the first day of conference nearly every vote went against the executive. Pay, continuing cuts and the Private Finance Initiative all fuelled angry comments and speeches.
Defend Candy and Dave
ALTHOUGH THE executive managed to dampen down delegates' angry mood they had to work overtime to do so, and they didn't always succeed. New Labour health minister John Denham gave a lacklustre speech on the second day of the conference.
Many delegates muttered and shook their heads during his speech. Despite the fact that the questioners were handpicked by the chair, all but one were critical of the government. There was massive applause when Tommy Grant said to Denham, "Our members are still suffering the backlash of Conservative policies, policies that are shamefully carried on by this Labour government.
"Will you return to Tony Blair and tell him of the anger of UNISON members?" There was also a feeling of shock at the union leadership's decision to expel two leading activists, Candy Udwin and Dave Carr from UCLH in central London. The leadership stopped all discussion of the expulsions on the conference floor. But many people signed a statement opposing the expulsions and calling for the reinstatement of Dave and Candy to the union.
- The Defend Candy and Dave campaign has launched an urgent financial appeal to help fight the expulsions. Send donations and messages of support to Defend Candy and Dave Campaign, c/o Sandy Nichol, SOAS UNISON, SOAS, University of London, Thornhaugh Street, London WC1H 0XG.
IN DUDLEY in the west Midlands a PFI scheme threatens to decimate healthcare in an area already reeling from the crisis at Longbridge. UNISON members have requested a ballot for industrial action to fight the proposals. "The PFI scheme will be devastating for the area," says catering worker Angela Thompson. The trust officially say that 70 beds will be lost, but we believe the real figure will be higher. There will be at least 170 jobs lost. They are flattening Wordsley Hospital where I work. We've got a maternity unit there which was built just ten years ago for 7 million."
Porter Paul Farmer says, "At Russell's Hall Hospital we have the second biggest casualty unit in the country. We are already in crisis, with people on beds in corridors. "Now it's going to get even worse for staff and patients. I just can't believe the government when it promises more for the NHS. Every PFI project means job losses and bed losses. The government said we needed 4,000 more beds. Yet that many are going to be lost in the PFI schemes."