By Matthew Cookson
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Organising for Fighting Unions: a crucial debate on future of unions

This article is over 15 years, 3 months old
Last weekend saw another round of demonstrations against NHS cuts, which have provoked protests across the country.
Issue 2023
Trade unions, local residents and health campaigners protest in Oxford last Saturday	 (Pic: Socialist Worker)
Trade unions, local residents and health campaigners protest in Oxford last Saturday (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Last weekend saw another round of demonstrations against NHS cuts, which have provoked protests across the country.

The police estimated that 7,000 people protested in Haywards Heath in Sussex against cuts at the town’s Princess Royal Hospital, which is also facing possible closure.

Hundreds also marched in Brighton and Oxford against cuts.

John Lister, from Keep Our NHS Public, told the Oxford rally, “Health secretary Patricia Hewitt is drawing up a ‘heat map’ to position closures and bring in privatisation – places where there aren’t demonstrations and activists on the ground.”

Vivienne Brown, who works at a GP’s surgery in Oxford, told Socialist Worker that she was on the demonstration “to make sure that future generations have a health service.

“We could lose everything, and I can’t imagine what life will be like for vulnerable people if there is no NHS.”

The revolt against health cuts is provoking a debate among campaigners and trade unionists about how to defend the NHS and what sort of unions we need.

Hundreds will come together to discuss these and other issues at the Organising for Fighting Unions conference in London on 11 November.

The conference, initiated by Respect, is set to be a meeting place for activists across the unions who are sick of New Labour’s pro-privatisation and anti-worker policies and want the unions to challenge them.

The conference will also provide a chance to debate whether such change is possible through the Labour Party.

Workers Charter

Delegates will discuss a Workers Charter. This puts forward a number of crucial issues such as fighting for the Trade Union Freedom Bill and against privatisation as campaigning priories for the activists after the conference.

Union members on the Oxford demonstration spoke to Socialist Worker about why they will be attending the conference.

Stephen Parkinson, a health worker and Unison union member, said, “I work at the Churchill hospital in Oxford and my wife works at the John Radcliffe hospital.

“We are both coming to the Organising for Fighting Unions conference as delegates from the trades council.

“We have experienced Agenda for Change which meant pay cuts. Now we are seeing job cuts.

“On the renal ward at Churchill the crucial blood service has been cut by half. This means the patients are waiting too long on the ward.

“There are also threats of outsourcing.

“The Labour Party should be holding its heads in shame about what it is doing to the NHS. Patients are suffering. It’s a disgrace.

“A woman who has worked for the NHS for 15 years handed in her notice last week. She was crying, but she felt she had no alternative but to get out because of the cuts and all the extra work she’s been forced to take on.

“I believe the union should take its funding away from the Labour Party.”

Kate Douglas is the branch secretary of the Department for Work and Pensions Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire branch of the PCS civil service workers’ union. Kate said, “A meeting of branch reps unanimously supported the conference and agreed to send me as a delegate.

“People are thoroughly pissed off with the privatisation, job cuts low pay and the management bullying that we face.

“They want the union to start fighting over this. In the DWP many activists are disappointed with the way that the union is winding down our industrial campaign against job cuts.

National campaign

“They welcome the planned national campaign across the civil service against job cuts, but they want a plan for more than one day of strike action.

“Mark Serwotka, the PCS general secretary, is speaking at the conference so it will be interesting to hear what he says. I will also be reporting back to my branch about the event.”

Paul Garraway, a member of the CWU communication workers’ union in Oxford, said, “There are five members of my branch going to the conference.

“The branch has a long running issue over the union paying money to the Labour Party and getting nothing in return. We have raised disaffiliation a number of times.”

A chance to rebuild rank and file union confidence

Mark Ladbrooke is the president of Oxford trades council and the chair of Oxfordshire Unison union health branch.

He told Socialist Worker, “The trades council is sending ten delegates to the conference.

“We have been seeing bigger turnouts over the last few months as more people are getting involved.

“The main issue we face is rebuilding rank and file organisation and the shop stewards’ committees. We need to rebuild people’s confidence that the unions are about fighting back.

“I hope that what comes out of the Organising for Fighting Unions conference is that we can do something proactive and positive.

‘We need to make broad connections across the unions.

“The pensions dispute that took place in the public sector this year had a colossal potential. But the union leaders split different sections off from the struggle, and the rank and file were too weak to stop that happening.

“But there will be more fights on public sector cuts and privatisation coming.

“We need to build an effective, united resistance to the cuts involving civil service workers, teachers, firefighters, health workers, local government workers and others.

“I hope this comes out of the conference.”

Activists are now mobilising for the NHS Together lobby of parliament on Tuesday 1 November. 11am, Parliament Square, central London.

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