In a magnificent show of defiance this week, hundreds of NHS workers in the supply service NHS Logistics will take the first national strike action in the NHS for 18 years. The one-day strike starting at 10pm tonight will mark an end to the 'phony war' between the unions and the Government over NHS privatisation, and could spark a national fightback against the selling off of the NHS to the private sector.
NHS Logistics workers are at the sharp end of the Government's agenda for the NHS, but what is happening to them now could be happening to every NHS worker sooner or later.
That's why it is so important that all NHS workers – indeed, everyone who cares about the future of the National Health Service – help to organise support for the NHS Logistics strike. Getting away with privatising NHS Logistics, which delivered millions of pounds worth of specialist equipment last year to NHS hospitals, and returned £3million back to the NHS from the proceeds of the service, will be seen as a green light by the Government to send the vultures in to every other part of the NHS.
Those vultures are already circling. United Health Europe are to be given the contract to run GP services in Derbyshire, which, when coupled with the hospitals they also run, amounts to a license to print money. Meanwhile, private businesses continue to milk millions from hospitals built by Private Finance Initiative, and private-sector Diagnostic and Treatment Centres are getting contracts which guarantee them a profit even if they don't treat any patients! The NHS is a cash-cow for the profiteers, and Hewitt is prepared to carve it open.
NHS Logistics workers have called a second days' strike action for September 26th – right in the middle of Labour Party conference. That's good, and will help to keep the issue at the forefront of the politicians' minds. But Blair, Brown and Hewitt show no sign of slowing down their attack – if anything, the pace of change in the NHS has accelerated recently.
The NHS Logistics workers need to step up their resistance – escalating the dispute beyond one day strikes as quickly as possible. One day strikes are useful in preparing the battle ground, but to really have an impact on NHS services, strikes need to affect deliveries for three or four days at a time. To deliver such sustained action, the NHS Logistics workers need to know that the rest of the union movement will support them, both politically and financially. Donations have been coming in to UNISON's hardship appeal, but all the NHS unions could be doing more to support the strikers. NHS Logistics workers are already low-paid, and it must never be said that their financial situation prevented them from taking the action needed to save their jobs.
UNISON is pinning a lot of hope on a judicial review of the consultation process which preceded the privatisation announcement. While that may help delay the move, the bottom line is that this privatisation will go through unless one of two things happen, both of which depend on concerted strike action. Either DHL and Novation will be scared off the deal because they see that the workforce are determined and combative, and thus unlikely to be easily squeezed into making fat profits for their new bosses, or the Government comes face to face with a massive and militant campaign against NHS privatisation and decides it has to back down. Neither of those outcomes will be decided in a courtroom. United, powerful industrial action is the key to victory.
Part of the fear seems to be that we risk losing public support if we stage effective strike action that actually impacts on clinical care. UNISON has been very cautious, assuring trusts that there will be only minimal disruption and limiting itself to one-day stoppages. With the stakes so high (DHL are due to take over in two weeks' time) we must reject this timidity, not to be irresponsible but to focus action so as to have an effect on routine and elective work. The short-term cost of risking some public anger against the long-term goal of stopping what would be the daily horror of a privatised NHS is a calculated risk that should be considered. The alternative is a token effort and the steamrollering through of further privatisation. Often, however, the UNISON leadership look like they have lost faith in industrial action as an effective weapon and will try anything to avoid members going on strike, or else will limit action to the most minimal token protests. That in itself breeds defeatism, and quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The other argument sometimes put forward for a 'softly, softly' approach is the frankly bizarre idea that we just have to wait for Tony to go and then Gordon will be ready to do a deal. We're being offered another 'jam tomorrow' strategy where if we can only wait for tomorrow something will happen and the world will change. But to have any faith that Brown is any different to Blair is naïve, which trade union General Secretaries are generally not. Ordinary trade unionists have much more to gain from the challenge by John McDonnell for the Labour leadership, and it is significant and indicative of the campaign he will run that McDonnell has already pledged full support to the NHS Logistics strikers. Public sector trade unions should all be backing McDonnell's bid for the leadership, as he's the only possible candidate to stand for trade union policies. And that's exactly why the union leaders don't want there to be an election at all, but an 'ordered' succession.
Healthworkers who want to help stop the destruction of the NHS must therefore do two things - organise industrially, through support for the NHS Logistics strike and by bringing forward disputes of their own, and also fight politically, forcing our unions to raise a challenge to the Blair-Brown-Hewitt privatisation agenda.
Full support to the NHS Logistics strikers!
Escalate the action to win the fight!
To donate to the NHS Logistics strike fund: http://www.unison.org.uk/healthcare/NHSlogistics
To read more on John McDonnell's leadership bid: http://www.john4leader.org.uk
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