The anger among health workers over mounting job losses and creeping privatisation in the NHS has the potential to spill over into industrial action.
Thousands of job losses have been announced in the NHS in recent weeks, and tens of thousands more are expected as trusts attempt to claw back deficits estimated at over £1 billion.
The Royal College of Nursing estimates that 13,000 NHS posts are set to be axed in England. Some 7,000 job losses across Britain have already been confirmed.
The Unison union organised a rally in defence of the NHS in Gateshead on Monday of this week to coincide with its annual conference of health workers.
General secretary Dave Prentis told protesters, “We will support our members who take action to prevent job losses and privatisation.” He also warned Labour that the “party will face consequences at the next election unless they get their act in order”.
Workers from the north east of England joined conference delegates at the rally. They included a lively contingent of staff from the Prescription Pricing Authority (PPA). The service has been targeted for privatisation and faces 1,300 job cuts.
Mandy Egglestone, a PPA worker from Durham, told Socialist Worker that she welcomed Prentis’s remarks and that her fellow workers would be prepared to strike.
“Management want to bring in a totally different system. It will make us work like robots, removing the intelligent side of the job, so they won’t need as many of us,” she said.
Some of those at the rally had already faced privatisation. Three years ago Pauline Kempster and her fellow workers at Saint Clements Hospital, east London, fought to defend their wages and conditions after catering, portering and cleaning was contracted out. Now a new multinational has come in, offering to do the same work for less money.
“All the girls who work with me in the canteen say they want no more of the market, and they would be prepared to take action,” said Pauline, who has worked for 15 years in the NHS and is paid just £5.35 an hour.
Paul Harper is a branch secretary for Unison’s logistics branch in Maidstone, Kent. This powerful group of workers could bring the NHS to a halt in three days if they stopped delivering supplies. Now they are threatened with contracting out.
“In the past we’ve not wanted to take strike action, but now we feel there is no alternative,” he said. Paul told Socialist Worker that a consultative ballot saw 92 percent vote in favour of action and that a strike ballot was now being considered.
But New Labour’s health secretary Patricia Hewitt is not for turning. “I make no apology at all for saying that it has been the best year for the NHS,” she told health workers at the conference.
Hewitt’s contempt for those struggling to run the health service drew a furious response from delegates. They held up placards that read “Sack Blair, not health workers” and her speech was constantly interrupted with heckling and disbelieving laughter.
The accumulated bitterness boiled over when Hewitt spoke of “more tough choices ahead”. “By 2008 we will have effectively abolished waiting lists,” she said. “Abolished the NHS more like,” shouted delegates.
There were cries of “shame” when she told delegates, “Yes, we’re using the private sector. That’s not privatisation, it’s progress.”
The example used by Hewitt to justify free market measures was the reduction in waiting lists for cataract operations. But this claim was met with howls of derision.
An hour earlier at the Gateshead rally Labour MP Frank Dobson, one of Hewitt’s predecessors as health secretary, told protesters that she was not to be believed if she trotted out this example.
“In 1998 we did 170,000 cataract operations. In 2004 we did 300,000. The private sector did just 20,000 operations. It wasn’t the private sector that brought down waiting lists,” said Dobson.
Hewitt also faced an angry grilling from delegates after she spoke. Martin Booth from Cambridge responded to her claim that the deficits were not affecting patient care.
“In my area deficits are spiralling,” he said. “Community hospitals are closing in Suffolk, wards are being closed in Peterborough and Bury St Edmunds, jobs are being lost.
“In Cambridge the primary care trust is in deficit over £25 million with an impact on mental health, young people’s services, old people’s rehabilitation and so on. So I’m sorry, the deficits are affecting patient care.
“Your department sent in troubleshooters, but they found there aren’t any savings to be made. Why can’t there be recognition that there are areas that need resources diverted into them?”
Whenever delegates stood up to condemn New Labour or call for strike action against the attacks they were met with enthusiastic applause.
The conference also passed motions condemning privatisation of services and giving support to the Keep Our NHS Public campaign.
Important debates on pensions, and pay and conditions were set to take place as Socialist Worker went to press.
Over many issues there was a clear mood to fight from ordinary health workers. While the union’s leaders reflect some of this anger, their links to the Labour Party make it harder for them to fight what they constantly referred to as “our government”.
It will require clearer politics and organisation from below if the mood for action is not to be squandered. And pressure will be required if the union is to turn an emerging rash of local disputes and grievances into a concerted national campaign of action to defend the NHS.
‘We have to call a day of action’
Karen Reissmann from Unison’s Manchester community and mental health branch caught the mood of many delegates when she spoke at the Gateshead conference. She spoke to Socialist Worker about the next steps in the campaign
I was one of those holding up placards when Patricia Hewitt spoke – but the anger ran right through the audience.
The combination of the scale of the attacks and the anger in response puts health workers in a position where we have to do something.
We have a government that is totally committed to the idea that the free market is the best way to run our services.
For every £1 million put into the NHS, £1 million pours out into the private sector. Some 15 percent of health spending now goes on “transaction costs” – it used to be 4 percent.
That’s £12 billion spent on an internal market. The total NHS deficit is only about £1 billion.
The time has come to start seriously looking at an industrial action strategy.
The fact that the union leadership has shifted a degree makes it a bit easier. Some branches will feel they have a green light to take action. Others do not yet have that confidence.
We desperately need a national day of action and a demonstration in defence of the NHS.
Many members of the public that do not work in the NHS but understand that the service is under threat would support such action.
That would help give health workers across the country the confidence they need to act.
Unison is supporting a lobby of parliament against NHS job cuts called by the Royal College of Nursing on Thursday 11 May. Assemble 12.30pm outside parliament. The lobby will be followed by a rally at Westminster Central Hall.