Why does UNISON see activists as enemies?
NHS UNDERFUNDING is one of the greatest scandals of New Labour's time in office. Anger reached boiling point over the last two weeks. Patients have been denied lifesaving operations while NHS staff struggled to provide a service. Tony Blair came up with political spin rather than a clear promise to invest more in hospitals. Yet incredibly leaders of UNISON, the main union representing health workers, refused last week to launch protests to demand New Labour raises health spending. Instead they initiated disciplinary action against two UNISON members who have an unparalleled record of fighting to defend the NHS.
Candy Udwin and Dave Carr are the secretary and chair of UNISON at UCLH hospitals in central London. They, and the health workers they represent, have fought off hospital and ward closures, and have campaigned against privatisation. They have beaten back attempts by management to sack them and break the union. Now they face being thrown out of their own union for leading such fightbacks. Candy Udwin has been in the forefront of battles to defend the NHS for a quarter of a century:
- From 1976 to 1979 she was secretary of the successful campaign to save the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson women's hospital. Workers occupied to stop it from closing.
- She has worked as a clinic receptionist at UCLH hospitals since 1980, and has led strikes and campaigns to stop ward closures, cuts and privatisation.
- She played a leading role in the fight against cuts at the Royal Northern Hospital in 1980.
- She helped organise the 1982 health workers' strikes over pay which put the Tories on the defensive over the NHS throughout the 1980s.
- She was part of the 1988 strikes and campaigns across Britain in defence of the NHS. That movement forced the Tories to raise health spending.
- She was central to an indefinite strike and occupation of ward 2/1 at the hospital in 1992, which saved it from closure.
- She fought to stop the closure of the hospital as part of a six week strike by nurses and porters in 1993.
- She helped organise a rent strike and sleep-out by nurses in 1994.
Dave Carr is a staff nurse at UCLH hospitals. He works in a highly specialised area-nursing people recovering from burns and plastic surgery. UCLH management sacked him when he was leading a strike to stop ancillary staff being forced to do more than one job to make up for staff cuts. Outrage from workers in the hospital and local area forced management to reinstate him the day before an indefinite strike was due to start. Dave and Candy led the campaign against the privatisation of UCLH hospitals through a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) scheme in 1998-9.
The scheme means the NHS will pay between �20 million and �30 million to a private consortium over the next 30 years. Beds have been cut. Hospital residences for staff and the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital have been closed, the prime sites sold off for luxury developments. UCLH management has tried every filthy trick to try to get rid of Candy and Dave. They tried to sack Candy two years ago because UCLH UNISON called a lobby of the Labour Party conference in 1997, and for her activity representing health workers. Trade unionists at UCLH have inspired workers in other hospitals and in the local community to resist health cuts under the Tories, and now under New Labour. They have also given solidarity to other groups of workers, from the miners to the Ford workers who struck back against racism last year. They now need that solidarity in return.
Fight against witch hunt
THE CHARGES brought by UNISON's leaders are beyond belief. Candy and Dave stand accused of implementing their union branch's democratic decisions to campaign over health funding. They are also "guilty" of fighting the PFI scheme which was imposed on UCLH hospital workers last year. UNISON leaders called off strike action against privatisation. UNISON leaders are not prepared to stoke up workers' anger at New Labour's neglect of the NHS and its big business policies.
They are frightened to confront the government. Yet they are lashing out at union members who have challenged the government's policies. Activists in Birmingham and Roddy Slorach in Glasgow were set to face disciplinary proceedings by UNISON nationally this week. The UNISON branch in Sheffield is also due to face further attacks from the UNISON leadership. But if workers like Candy and Dave had not fought for the last 20 years the Tories would have ripped the NHS to shreds. Now they are putting the heat under New Labour.
At the Middlesex Hospital, the largest part of the UCLH trust, UNISON members have voted to walk out on 10 February, the day UNISON is set to discipline Candy and Dave. They will face enormous pressure from management, and sadly from full time union officials, not to do so. "We want to build on that vote across every part of the trust," says portering steward Karl Winder. "Every message of support and delegation on the demonstration we have called over health spending will boost the confidence of health workers here. It will also put pressure on our union leaders to start fighting for more money from the government and to stop attacking union activists."
- Send messages of support to UCLH UNISON, c/o Middlesex Hospital, Mortimer Street, London W1N 8AA. Fax/phone 020 7323 1162.
- Messages of condemnation to UNISON, 1 Mabledon Place, London WC1H 9AJ. Fax 020 7387 6692.