The health sector conference of the Unison union met in Plymouth last week and delegates voted to ballot for industrial action if the pension age was raised from 60 to 65.
Several motions critical of New Labour’s privatisation policies were also carried overwhelmingly.
While the NHS has featured regularly in the election campaign, there was little enthusiasm for New Labour from delegates at the conference.
Yunus Bakhsh, a member of Unison’s health service executive, said, “There was no serious attempt to promote Labour at the conference. A week before the election there seemed to be more Respect stickers than Labour ones.
“There were people who said they wanted Labour to be a ‘listening government’ in the third term, but most people regarded that as a joke.
“Privately Labour Party members were saying they couldn’t bring themselves to campaign for Labour.”
That contrasts with a major effort by the union’s leadership behind the scenes to deliver a vote for Tony Blair.
Karen Reissmann is the chair of Manchester community and mental health Unison branch. She told Socialist Worker that, even though Unison is one of Labour’s biggest donors, “The union’s leadership didn’t feel they could sell Labour to delegates.
“The only Labour speaker was international development secretary Hilary Benn. He spoke almost exclusively about combating HIV in Africa. That was the only reason he gave for backing the Labour Party.”
Janet Maiden, chair of the Unison branch at University College London Hospitals, said, “Any time people spoke about privatisation and how Labour’s policies were like those of the Tories, it went down really well. The union leadership really has very little to say going into the third term of New Labour.”
One key issue that will shape the relationship between Labour and health workers is negotiations over pensions, set to restart after the election.
A motion calling for industrial action if Labour tries to raise the pension age for health workers to 65 was passed almost unanimously.
On Agenda for Change, the government’s sweeping plan to reform pay and conditions for all health workers, conference voted through motions saying no health worker should lose out over the deal, and that those whose jobs have been privatised should also be included.
There was growing concern in the ambulance sector over Agenda for Change.
Ambulance managers had to be forced to release the new job profiles in the run up to conference. But locally managers are now saying they can’t afford to fund the deal and it is likely there will be local battles over implementation.
A 60-strong fringe meeting organised by Health Worker — a newspaper written by and for health workers — discussed pensions, Agenda for Change and how best to build a fighting alternative to the current leadership of Unison.