The union leadership’s failure to produce enough resistance to the Tory assault on the NHS defined Unison’s health conference in Liverpool this week.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis told delegates,“Right now the NHS needs those with the will, spirit and dedication to fight.” That’s true, but there was little sign of action.
Karen Reissmann, who sits on Unison’s health service group executive committee (SGE), spoke to Socialist Worker in a personal capacity.
“The leadership is not coming from the SGE,” she explained. “This leaves people disoriented.”
But there is an opportunity for health workers to begin a fightback around pay, which delegates were set to debate later in the week.
The leadership is holding a consultation on the imposition of a 1 percent pay cap. It wants local disputes over rebanding in each of its 12 regions.
Prentis promised “all the resources of the national union” to branches that begin such action.
But this cannot be a substitute for national industrial action. Gareth Drinkwater, a delegate from Bournemouth, told the conference, “Any strikes are welcome because any win gives confidence to all.”
But he went on to say that Unison has to develop a broader strategy.
The Royal College of Nursing, which is not affiliated to the TUC, is consulting its members over pay, including on whether to take national industrial action.
Unison leaders have ridiculed their ability to deliver a ballot. Ridicule is not going to save the NHS.
Delegates passed an emergency motion from the SGE to “ramp up the campaign to challenge the 1 percent pay cap”.
It reiterated Unison’s objective of £10 hour minimum wage at least a £1 an hour rise for all Agenda for Change staff.
The motion articulated the anger that health workers’ feel at poverty pay. It commits Unison to “work with the TUC and other NHS trade unions to explore all options for opposing and breaking the 1 percent pay policy”.
Jane Lee from Manchester said, “We’ve heard about all the attacks our members have faced at conference— it’s about time Unison went on the attack.
“I am massively in favour of Unison campaigning for industrial action.”
“But”, she added, “our main fight on our hands is to campaign for a Labour government.”
This meant that the Mid Yorkshire Health branch’s amendment to a previous SGE motion on pay automatically fell. It would have committed to Unison to “campaign among and prepare our health membership for a ballot for legal industrial action in support of the claim” before April 2018.
That’s why some spoke against the emergency motion.
Speaking against the SGE emergency motion, one delegate said, “We are confusing the 1 percent pay rise with earning maximisation at a local level.
“Managers are laughing and we will be weakened at the local level—we have to fight at a national level.”
The Unison leadership wants to have a rebanding dispute in each of its 12 regions, Health workers can use the local disputes to build confidence, but it can’t be an alternative to national action.
Stephen McLean from Sussex argued that Unison should take a lead from the Royal London hospital cleaners who struck unofficially and won last month. “That’s how to beat back the attack on Agenda for Change,” he said. “Where there is anger and that anger is given a lead, we can fight.”
Gordon McKay from the Scotland region said to applause, “I don’t want to be having a pay debate next year.
“Either we’ve broken poverty pay—or we’re balloting for industrial action.”
Tories stirring up racism and division among health workers
Fighting the Tories’ racist assault on migrants was an important part of the conference.
Roz Norman, chair of Unison’s health service group executive (SGE), opened the conference by slamming Theresa May’s refusal to guarantee European Union migrants’ rights.
Delegates unanimously backed motions calling for EU migrants rights and challenging racism in the workplace.
The racist myths that migrants lower wages or put pressure on services were clearly rejected.
Mark from Bolton, Salford and Trafford mental health branch argued, “It’s really important that we support all workers because that makes our union stronger.
“Theresa May is going to whip up racism and use people as bargaining chips to try and make us weaker. The Tories are getting away with their attacks because we’re not standing up for each other.”
Bournemouth delegate Gareth urged people to affiliate their branches to Stand Up To Racism.
He added, “Migrants have not cuts our wages—the people who have are in the government and they are the problem.”
Speaker after speaker slammed the Tories’ scapegoating of EU migrants.
Some urged opposition the Tories’ racist passport checks in the NHS. David from Yorkshire and Humberside said, “Our members are becoming immigration officers and it is stirring up racism and division.
“Our motion was ruled out of order because it might be encouraging members to breach contracts.
“But what do we say to members if they’re disciplined for refusing to do this? If Rosa Parks had come to us, would we have told her to stand at the back of the bus?”
SGE member Karen Reissmann from the spoke about the need to take on those arguments—and build unity among workers. “It’s not just Tory politicians, some of our members and working class people accept those ideas about immigration as well,” she said.
“The best example is the Barts cleaners who walked out unofficially and won their breaks back.
“That’s migrant workers, that’s trade unionism, that’s solidarity.”
Around 40 people joined a Stand Up To Racism fringe meeting on Tuesday.
Speakers included Nahella Ashraf from Stand Up To Racism and Liverpool Labour councillor Anna Rothery.
Roger McKenzie, Unison deputy general secretary, said, “You defeat racism by building a movement that brings about a fundamental change in society in favour of working class people.
“This is the time to stand together. Now is the time we have to go out and organise.”
Tory cuts push up A&E waiting times in North West London
A devastating new report has given a glimpse of the devastation to the NHS caused by Tory policies—with worse to come.
Across England Sustainability and Transformation Plans will mean the closure or “downgrade” of up to 24 emergency departments.
The Centre for Health and the Public Interest published analysis looking at what happened in North West London after two emergency departments closed in 2014.
It found that in some hospitals, 40 percent of patients requiring serious treatment had to wait over four hours to be assessed and admitted.
Since then the performance of this area’s hospitals has been some of the worst in England.
For time-sensitive conditions such as sepsis or respiratory failure such delays are life-threatening.
And the report warned, “The quality of emergency care will be pushed to danger point and beyond if further closures are proceeded with.”
It’s not just in England that the NHS is in crisis.
A leaked email this week revealed how 36 patients in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary waited up to 17 hours in the emergency department for admission to a bed.
The memo described the flagship hospital as being “in extremis” and warned that the cancellation of major surgery was a “serious risk”.