Unions must lead NHS fight

Submitted by Anon on 22 October, 2006 - 5:02

By Mike Fenwick

The growing numbers of local demonstrations, lobbies and meetings about the crisis in the NHS has pushed the issue to the front of the national political debate.

Every party conference had a debate on the issue. David Cameron even tried to claim the NHS was safe in the Tories hands. If only because of the record of the Tories in government on the NHS — vicious cuts and starting the privatisation ball rolling — the claim is incredible. Besides the Tory policy is no different from that of Blair — no limits on privatisation and full speed ahead with foundation trusts and PFI.

The Lib Dems offer nothing better. In fact their Health Spokesman has said the problem with New Labour’s plans is that they don’t allow for the creation of a “true market” for health!

Very few political voices are arguing for a publically funded and owned health service, although in the Labour Party, the left wing leadership hopeful John McDonnell has made clear his support for this commitment.

But the very fact that Cameron focused on the NHS at his conference implies a lot. The regular turnout of thousands of people to events up and down the country is forcing the NHS onto the political agenda. The NHS will be an important election issue next May. New Labour are already calculating the likely effect of NHS cuts on marginal seats and aim to reduce the damage by putting some cuts on hold until after May.

Will the NHS campaign burgeon into a mass mobilisation, like the anti-poll tax campaign? There “official politics” offered no alternative to Thatcher’s poll tax. Millions refused to pay and the Tory government was forced to backdown. Building a national campaign with that kind of spirit and involvement would be an achievement.

However there are negative lessons from the anti-poll tax campaign. Then the trade unions lagged behind in the fight. Trade union action could have strengthened the revolt, even to the extent of getting rid of the whole Tory government. And such a victory could have stopped and reversed the right wing drift inside the Labour Party that led to Blair.

The trade unions seem once again to be dragging their feet.

On 1 October NHS Logistics — whose workers had struck, essentially against privatisation of the company — was formally taken over by DHL. This is the biggest privatisation so far in the NHS. The two days of strike action leading up to it were very well supported. The workers in the depots managed to organise great support and solidarity from their own and other branches. But ultimately it was a case of too little, too late. The union’s response to this privatisation had been to procrastinate, making a token effort but having little conviction in the strike tactic. As with the Local Government Pensions dispute they put their faith entirely on legal appeals, appeals that failed.

Appeal to the courts is a legitimate tactic but a union should first and foremost have confidence in the organisation of workers in the branches. As Solidarity has previously commented the limiting of the strikes to one day at a time, and an arrangement to limit their clinical impact, reduced the effectiveness of the strike weapon.

The Logistics workers now have limited options to continue a fight against DHL bosses. They can defend their terms and conditions but the privatisation seems to have been accepted as fact. A policy of militant industrial action that disrupts DHL’s plans to “rationalise” the service could force them to give up the contract and such a policy should be explored in the short term. However despite the best efforts of the workers we must recognise that the transfer of NHS Logisitics is a defeat.

Will the union leaders learn from this and take the threat of further privatisatins more seriously?

AMICUS is now leading a strike ballot for workers in the National Blood Service. A number of centres around the country are threatened with closure. This is seen as the prelude to privatisation. At least these workers have some time yet to plan and work out a strategy, a luxury denied to Logistics workers who had to wait until the contract was signed before any action was taken by their union, Unison.

But the effectiveness of strike action even in difficult circumstances has recently been demonstrated by the victory at Whipps Cross Hospital (see page 4). That is a reality not recognised by the trade union leadership.

Yet the grassroots movement outside of workplaces is increasing pressure on them. What we need is an organised opposition inside the unions to push forward a more militant policy and put further pressure on the leadership. A rank and file movement in the health unions needs to hold the leaders to account, push forward policies on fighting privatisation — policies which have been democratically agreed on at conferences — organising those in struggle and preparing a new leadership.

Unfortunately the number of organised socialists inside the NHS is very small and attempts to organise them are blocked both by the bureaucracy and the SWP who put their own organisational interests before that of developing a broader movement.

Supporters of the Alliance for Workers Liberty alongside comrades in the Socialist Party and independent socialists will continue to discuss and organise for the creation of such a movement. In the meantime many healthworkers are finding it more fruitful to participate in community based campaigns rather than stumble through the bureaucratic forest inside their unions

The increasing number of and level of activity in the community based campaigns can be a catalyst for change inside the unions. But it requires the effort of health activists to give this movement force and purpose. This way we can work out an industrial strategy to defeat privatisation.

In the first place we need a proper co-ordinating national body to lead and organise the campaigns, drawing on the financial resources of the unions and experience of community activists.

Keep our NHS Public had a national conference early this year before the tide of cuts became clear. We should be organising for a recall conference early next year to help plan and rally support for the national demonstration called by the TUC on 1 March.

The TUC has organised a lobby of parliament on 1 November. Local campaigns, KONHSP branches and unions should be organising to build this now and the feeder march which has been called by the National Pensioner’s Convention.

• Build for the lobby and march on 1 November.

• Build national and local action in our communities and our unions.

• For a national conference of KONHSP to pull together the different campaigns.

• For a rank and file movement of health workers to organise to make the unions fight.

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