By a Unison member
At the conference for health workers in Unison back in April, delegates voted for a vibrant national campaign against the cuts in the NHS. The lumbering machinery of the union is now slowly starting to move. It supported the 11 May lobby of parliament, originally called by the Royal College of Nursing and there is now some mention of a national campaign on Unison’s website!
More hopeful are the moves within the regions of Unison to establish some local a nationwide petition and some encouragement to branches to investigate possibilities of local action. But the more militant campaigning called for by delegates at the health conference is still missing.
No date has been set for a nationwide day of action, national demonstration or other unifying activity. No call has been made for branches to organise local broad-based campaigns, like that initiated at a national level.
Crucially, there is still no sign of movement on the call at conference for the union to “find ways to take national industrial action against the cuts”, and no indication that the leadership is interested in carrying out that policy. The leadership have already ruled out organising any action over this year’s NHS pay offer, which might have offered one route to national action.
Not only that, but where there is a mood to fight, such as amongst workers in NHS Logistics, due to be privatised this month, the Unison leadership are dragging their heels in organising, or even allowing, industrial action to be part of the strategy. So much for Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis’s commitment at the health conference to back members who wanted to strike to save their jobs.
Unison health activists need to be organising support for the NHS Logistics workers and others facing direct attacks, trying to organise the broadest possible local action, including strike action, and demanding the union live up to the promises made and the policies passed at health conference.
Our starting point is a low level of experience and organisation. Since its creation, Unison has never organised nationwide industrial action within the NHS. But this lack of experience can easily be used as an excuse by the leadership to avoid organising any action now, rather than as a challenge that needs to be overcome in order to succeed in this current fight.
Comparisons with the 1988 NHS strike wave, triggered by nurses in Manchester protesting over low night payments, can easily be overblown. That action was taken up and spread nationwide in the space of a week, and we can’t expect a repeat of that example. But localised action like over the NHS Logistics dispute could be used to galvanise the wider membership for action. In the hands of a fighting national leadership, that is exactly what would be happening.
Activists must be getting their union branches into fighting shape — the cuts are increasingly widespread, and the knife is not only falling in places where Trusts were in the red last year. Its clear that localised action will take place despite, not because of, the national leadership of the union. But action is necessary, and the more that is happening, the harder it will be for the leadership to justify their inaction on the grounds that there is no “mood” for a fight.
The health conference also agreed to find ways to use political pressure — including trying to win the de-selection of Labour MPs who stand by while the government chops up the NHS. Although this element of the strategy is unpopular with the union leadership, who fear it will damage the “good relationship” they have with ministers, and not understood by some sections of the Unison left, who prefer to call for the union simply to walk away from the Labour Party, leaving the Blairites without any opposition, it could be a pivotal part of linking up healthworkers and the public in a campaign to save the NHS. Standing pro-NHS activists against Labour candidates in local elections is one thing, but forcing the Labour Party to ditch Health Minister Patricia Hewitt as their candidate in Leicester West would be a more significant victory in the long-run.