HEALTH WORKERS last week ripped a hole in the government's strategy to force Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes through in the NHS. The government's plans for the NHS, including those announced in last month's budget, are based on a massive increase in PFI privatisation projects across the health service.
But workers at a conference in Brighton of the biggest health union, Unison, overwhelmingly rejected a deal their union leaders made with the government over the transfer of staff to private companies. This is a significant defeat for both the government and the union leaders' strategy over PFI.
It could seriously delay the government's new round of PFI projects. The vote was also a crushing defeat for the union's health executive. It had completely underestimated the mood of angry opposition to PFI. Unison leaders had given the go-ahead to three PFI pilot schemes. The deal means 85 percent of staff and new starters would continue to be employed by the NHS.
But some 15 percent of staff, including telephonists, medical records, transport and security staff would have their jobs sold off to private firms. Delegates at the conference were furious that Unison leaders had pushed ahead with such a deal without even consulting members. The mood during the hour and a half long debate was electric.
It took place just after Labour health minister John Hutton had faced a round of critical questions about New Labour's health policy, and particularly over the government's enthusiasm for privatisation. Speaker after speaker laid into the PFI pilot schemes.
They expressed fury that the union leadership would allow the jobs of some of its members to be sold off to private firms.
Some pointed out that it was the sustained nine-month action by hospital workers in Dudley that had forced the government to negotiate any such deal with Unison. Others attacked the fact that under the deal private companies would be able to set staffing levels, introduce flexible working and increase the hours of all workers-even those still employed by the NHS.
There were many speakers from Scotland and the north east of England-both areas where medical secretaries have recently taken successful strike action. The conference voted by two thirds to condemn the union leadership's acceptance of the PFI pilot schemes.
Delegates passed a motion that called on the union's health executive to review its policy. It ordered the executive to refuse to allow the extension of the pilot schemes unless all staff remained as NHS employees, and to consult the membership before any future decisions are taken.
The motion also demanded that the union coordinates a campaign, including industrial action, to fight against PFI and for all staff to stay as NHS employees.
Four members of the health executive, Mark New, Yunus Bakhsh, Kate Ahrens and Trevor Kenworthy, walked off the platform in opposition to its PFI strategy. Yunus Bakhsh told Socialist Worker, 'The Unison leadership's policy is now in tatters.
'This is the single biggest defeat ever for the union leadership over PFI. It lost the debate because it is out of touch with the members and because it did not understand that members are not going to hand over 15 percent of staff to private firms without a fight. We now need to mount a fight for all workers to stay in the NHS, and to organise, build and coordinate a plan of industrial action.'