Socialist Worker

NHS staff at Unison health conference say, fight the cuts

by Tomáš Tengely-Evans in Liverpool
Issue No. 2449

Unison members and supporters in Glasgow fight cuts - and the anger goes much deeper

Unison members and supporters in Glasgow fight cuts - and the anger goes much deeper (Pic: Duncan Brown)

Health workers met in Liverpool this week as a new survey revealed the severe crisis gripping the NHS. 

The Unison union report found that health workers don’t have time to give proper care to patients—and that staffing levels have got worse.

The Unison health conference was marked by anger at the Tory destruction of the NHS.

Many workers were also furious at the government’s plan to force patients to show passports before being treated in hospitals (see below).

Unison’s leadership stressed the need to get behind Labour in May’s general election. 

General secretary Dave Prentis told delegates, “This is about the future of our civilised society.”

But union leaders couldn’t simply call on members to “vote Labour to save the NHS” because there is no enthusiasm for Ed Miliband, who is committed to austerity. 

And there was a mood among delegates for a fightback. Prentis was forced to acknowledge, “Unison will need to fight whoever is in parliament.”

There was massive applause when he added, “There will be more ballots for industrial action. If they—or anybody—come after our unsocial hours pay, this time we will keep the action going until they pull back.”


Many delegates were frustrated and angry with the leadership for calling off two planned pay walkouts earlier this year. 

Stephen McClean from Sussex said, “There’s talk of resisting the Tories plan for the NHS—but that’s exactly what we did on 30 November 2011. 

“Health workers then went from the rear of the pensions fight to the vanguard of the pay fight, but that was also called off.”

He added  to loud applause, “Our sisters and brothers in local government have overturned their pay deal – we have to take that spirit and do the same.


“We will hold Dave Prentis to every syllable of what he said yesterday. We want to be out – and stay out – until that group of Etonian millionaires stops knocking the shit out of us.”

Delegates were furious with the Tories’ plans to bring in seven-day working in the NHS by smashing unsocial hours pay.

There is potential for industrial action but activists need to be in a stronger position to hold Prentis and the leadership to account. 

Around 60 people attended a health worker fringe meeting where workers from the Glasgow homelessness strike spoke. 

Activists debated how to build networks that can build stronger action. 

Workers should use Prentis’s pledge to build confidence and push for more action—whoever is in government after May. 

 Tories’ nasty passport plan will whip up racism and bring in health charges

The Tories have announced plans to turn health workers into border guards and scapegoat migrants. 

They want to force patients to bring passports into hospitals before they can get the treatment they need.

Many delegates at Unison’s health conference were outraged about the plans.

Hospital domestic worker Jama told Socialist Worker, “That’s fundamentally wrong. It’s part of the draconian laws the Tories are bringing in.

“The health service is there to help people and this will discriminate against people.”

Annie from Epsom and St Helier agreed and said the plan was part of a bigger problem of racism and the rise of Ukip. 

“It’s ridiculous to ask people to bring in their passports,” she told Socialist Worker. “The Tories are trying to be more like Ukip—we’re going back to the 1930s in the way we treat people.” 

Karen Reissmann, a member of the Unison health service group executive, spoke to Socialist Worker in a personal capacity.

“This is not just about Ukip,” she said. “The Tories are also trying to use the profound problems that exist in the NHS.

“They want to blame migrant workers for the long waiting lists, lack of nurses and GPs. They want us to focus on the peanuts that migrant workers get—and not look at what they put in.

“But you’re still more likely to be treated by a migrant health worker than ‘compete’ with one for a hospital bed.”

Karen warned that the plan would increase racism and lay the ground for a bigger attack on the health service.

She said, “It will be black people who will be questioned and asked for their passports, not white people.

“To turn health workers into people who check passports will mean an end to health services free at the point of use. 

“Once you start charging migrant workers, it’s only a small step to introducing charges for all.”

Jama stressed that unions had to lead the way in fighting the plan.

“It’s not a question of the unions ‘trying’ to oppose it,” she said. “They have to oppose these plans all the way.”

A united fight can win better pay for all workers

Delegates debated NHS pay on Monday of this week. The debate was cut short but workers’ frustration with the leadership calling off two planned walkouts was clear.

It also bought to a head a debate on pay and devolution.

Delegates substantially defeated a motion arguing for the union to leave the pay review body (PRB). But a motion that would allow Scotland to leave the PRB was passed. 

Tory health secretary Jeremy Hunt refused to give most health workers even the 1 percent pay rise that the PRB recommended.

One delegate asked, “Why are we having a debate on recognising the PRB if Hunt doesn’t recognise it? It’s delivered nothing but insults.”

Many delegates were concerned that leaving the PRB would lead to regional pay. But the real danger of regional pay lies with the Tories’ plans to fragment the NHS. 

Hanging behind the debates on devolution is the leadership’s concern that Labour will not win a majority because of its near collapse in Scotland.

Harry Seddon from the Unison health executive told Socialist Worker, “Scotland will now be able to pull out of the PRB.

“But whether we have the PRB or not, the union is still heavily reliant on the government to negotiate deals. 

“The debate is on keeping the PRB or having the alternative ‘free collective bargaining’. But ‘free collective bargaining’ didn’t achieve what the PRB offered us.”

This was because Unison wrongly called off industrial action at a time when an impending attack on unsocial hours was adding to workers’ anger.

A united fight can win higher pay across Britain. The Tories are drawing the battle lines around unsocial hours payments. Unison must ballot and campaign for a Yes vote in response.

We must take on Ukip's racism, say Unison delegates

Delegates debated about how best to take on Ukip and its racist arguments. 

Maria Taylor from Rotherham told Socialist Worker how Ukip had tried to make gains in the wake of a child abuse scandal there. “It’s been really terrible,” she said. 

“There’s a big migrant community in Rotherham – and Ukip is definitely playing the immigration card.” 

Unison member Michelle said, “It’s important we label them as racist and take on their arguments. When we do it, Ukip hate it and many people don’t normally realise what their policies are.”

Around 30 delegates attended a fringe meeting at the conference organised by the Stand Up to Ukip campaign.

Zak Cochrane from Stand Up to Ukip said, “All the mainstream parties are scapegoating migrants, but Ukip are the pacemakers. They’re pulling politics to the right and that’s a real danger.

“But there’s also a mood growing to oppose them.”

Labour councillor and Unison union branch secretary Waida Forman said activists had won a victory against Ukip in Harlow, Essex.

“There was a by-election after a Ukip councillor had to stand down and we won the seat back,” she said.

“When arguments have come up in work, I’ve made a newsletter and given out leaflets to take them on.”

Stand Up to Ukip is organising a day of action on 2 May in Ukip’s target seats: Thanet South, Clacton on Sea, Rochester and Strood, Dudley North, Great Yarmouth and Rotherham.

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Tue 14 Apr 2015, 16:52 BST
Issue No. 2449
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