“An insult.” “Taking advantage of our goodwill.” “This government does not appreciate us.” They were some of the reactions of health workers to chancellor Gordon Brown’s refusal to offer them decent pay after his recent budget. The workers were speaking on the first day of the health conference of the public sector Unison union.
Everyone was glad the government had promised more money for the NHS. But they want that money spent on providing decent care for patients and ending poverty wages. Health worker after health worker told nightmare stories of low pay, long hours, shifts that wreck family life, and betrayal after betrayal from the Labour government.
Kay Walker spoke of how “this government is continuing to exploit health workers. It is taking advantage of the fact we care.” Maeve Manning from Exeter attacked the government’s “utmost shame” in refusing to fund free care for the elderly.
“Instead the government is means testing the elderly and disabled,” she said. Sue Batson from Cornwall movingly described how her 91 year old mother had died after being shunted from a casualty department to another hospital. “She had to spend ten hours on a trolley. I wanted her to die with dignity, not to die in a corridor,” she said.
There was a slightly subdued atmosphere on the first day of the conference. But delegates who attacked the government’s poor record and talked of fighting back got enthusiastic applause.
Carolyn Leckie from Glasgow was loudly clapped when she spoke of the victory of medical secretaries in winning regrading. “It showed if you fight you can win. Gordon Brown may whine about investment disappearing down the cracks of health workers’ pay. But we worry about money disappearing to the likes of Sodexho, Interserve and the other private companies who leech off the NHS.”
Some delegates expressed anger over their union leaders’ failure to call national, militant action over both privatisation and low pay. Sarah Warden from Newcastle said, “Health workers are suffering from low pay and poor conditions now. This union needs to lead, and to fight the employers and the government. We need action now.”
At a fringe meeting on the Private Finance Initiative speakers attacked the union’s assistant general secretary, Bob Abberley, for accepting pilot schemes for PFI projects.
These mean some staff will still be transferred to the private sector. A Labour Party member from Leicester said, “We have NHS employees who are managed by the private firm Sodexho. Every day we find there is less training, less attention to health and safety, and little things chipped away.” And there was applause for Mark Ladbroke from Oxfordshire when he angrily said, “We shouldn’t be on our knees begging for concessions. These are just empty promises. We need to be fighting.”