Socialist Worker

Unite union policy conference takes on NHS cuts, Labour, fracking and racism

by Dave Sewell
Issue No. 2411

The fight for the NHS

The Unite union put the fight for the NHS centre stage at its policy conference in Liverpool last week.

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham called for making next year’s election a “referendum on the NHS”. And Unite executive chair Tony Woodhouse said he was prepared to go to jail for the NHS and hoped every Unite activist would do the same.

Health workers from across Britain and Ireland spoke about how Tory attacks on the NHS were affecting them.

Paramedic Debbie Wilkinson explained the background to a long and bitter dispute at the Yorkshire Ambulance Service.

“There’s a conspiracy going on in our NHS,” she said.

“The government is squeezing the life out of it. Cuts to ambulance services are causing them to fail so that private companies can take the business. But our ‘business’ is saving lives, and ‘failure’ means people die.

“They think we’re going to take it, but we’re not.”

Many workers were looking forward to the prospect of strikes over pay in the NHS in the autumn.

Nicola Redwood, from south London told Socialist Worker, “We need to go on strike. We want this government to listen, and any future government. We want all the private investment in the NHS to be brought back 100 percent into public control.”

Emergency motions were passed on defending NHS pay, and standing with the biomedical scientists who have been locked out at Northampton General Hospital.


'Labour should stand up to the cuts'

The conference also heard from dozens of ordinary workers who talked about their experiences at work.

In the session on employment rights, distribution worker John Evans said, “They said we couldn’t ballot agency workers. We did. They said we couldn’t win. We did.”

There was criticism of Labour, including an emergency motion condemning Ed Miliband’s attack on benefits for the young unemployed.

“This policy panders to myths about young people,” said engineering worker George White. “Our political strategy calls on us to get our members into the party and this makes it much harder.”

Merseyside worker Sid Graves spoke against cuts to local government.

“We are proud of the services our members provide. The list is endless and often the jobs are thankless.

“And what will Labour do? Stick to Tory spending plans. That is not good enough. Our party should be standing up for services and working people, not carrying through Tory cuts.”

In other business, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey reported that plans to merge with the PCS union would no longer be going ahead as its members refused to meet Unite’s rules—in particular that they would have to affiliate to the Labour Party. And a merger with TSSA is in difficulty over finance.

In a session on international solidarity Unite affirmed its support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israeli apartheid, and passed an emergency motion against new intervention in Iraq.

But CND was banned from holding a stall inside, due to objections from Unite’s defence sector.


Fracking is muck for a fast buck

Perhaps the most contested debate was on fracking for shale gas.

Unite opposes fracking, but a new statement proposed by the executive would have softened this. The executive acknowledged that the union still believed fracking carried great risks for the environment, would create far fewer jobs than its supporters claimed, and would not lead to cheaper gas prices.

But they also argued that fracking was now inevitable, and that a priority had to be recruiting workers in the industry.

In the debate that followed, they could not find enough people to speak in support of their position.

Health worker Denyze Harris, whose son was arrested on a fracking demonstration, was applauded when she called the EC statement a “fudge”. She said, “Fracking is morally abhorrent. We should be putting this money into renewables, not more fossil fuels.”

Engineering worker Allan Robins said, “They say that where there’s muck there’s brass, but there’s some muck you just don’t put your hand in.” He contrasted the potential for “real jobs” in renewables with the “quick buck” to be made from fracking.

Local government worker Tony Staunton said, “If we’d known about the dangers of asbestos in advance we’d have campaigned to ban it then, not listened to the bosses saying don’t worry about it.”

The executive’s motion was defeated, in favour of an anti-fracking motion.


Defending migrant workers

Unite came out strongly against racism, fascism and the scapegoating of migrant workers.

More than 40 people attended a Unite Against Fascism (UAF) fringe meeting with speakers including TUC president Mohammed Taj and UAF joint secretary Weyman Bennett.

The conference also backed the call for protests outside the Ukip conference in Doncaster on Saturday 27 September called by Stand up to Ukip.

Andrei Dudai, a Romanian worker who is building Unite in his food factory, told Socialist Worker, “Attacking someone who’s different from you is wrong. The only people we have to hold responsible for the state of the economy are those in charge.

“No immigrant has the power to wreck lives—it lies with the top bosses we didn’t even elect. We should unite in attacking them.”


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