I was chatting to a Unison member yesterday – an NHS worker in a London primary care trust. She really needs a full time job for financial reasons, but she reluctantly accepted a 25 hour a week contract because the job was local and convenient.
Eight or nine months later, the manager decided that there had only been enough money in the budget for 22 hours a week, the 25 hour a week post had supposedly been offered by accident, and the person’s hours would be reduced. The health worker obviously said ‘No’ – so the manager told her if she didn’t agree, she would have her contract terminated. On that basis, the worker ‘agreed’. The fear of dismissal outweighed her confidence that her union could do anything about it.
There’s an obvious problem here. This is vicious and nasty bullying, and it’s outrageous that this stuff happens in the NHS. I hear far too many stories of Trusts bullying people into accepting worse pay or worse conditions, and even of trumped-up disciplinary charges being used as a cheap alternative to redundancy.
It’s inexcusable that employers behave like this – but it’s also inexcusable that we let them. There’s a real urgency now to rebuilding our union organisation. We’ve got to have the union density and the level of confidence amongst members that we can stop this nonsense. Some of this is down to individual reps – re-learning old traditions of being accountable to members, keeping people informed, organising meetings and trying to build a sense of collectivity. It’s not easy doing this – it means taking risks, sticking your neck out, and working very, very hard.
Sometimes that not enough. I read in an Officer’s report to the last Regional Council that we had no reps across three neighbouring Trusts in London. They are all places where only two or three years ago we had good, competent reps who worked hard and delivered. But, obviously, the pressures have led to a weakened organisation.
That’s where the Union comes in. We must ensure Unite gives reps all the support they need. Some of this is the obvious stuff around effective training for reps, and support from full time officers being available when you need it. It’s about strategy – of course we can’t fight on a Trust by Trust basis. The Government has a coherent strategy of dismantling the NHS. The employers work together and share information, and the ‘reforms’ of the NHS are all variations on a theme of marketisation and privatisation. We need a far more strategic response ourselves on how to resist, how to organise, how to make links between different groups of workers under threat. We need a campaigning approach too – making the links between trade unions and community campaigns, and – in a general union like Unite – making sure that defending the NHS is an issue for ALL our members.
These are the sorts of things that we’re now working hard to put in place in Unite in London Region. We’ve got some good campaigning work just beginning to get off the ground; a special issue newspaper on defending the NHS going in bundles to every T&G and every Amicus rep, across all our industrial sectors, for distribution to members; plans for much better dedicated support from officers for NHS reps; London-wide reps study days to build those vital links between reps from different employers, and to involve lay members in agreeing the best response to the attacks we face. We’ve made real progress over the last month in moving this agenda forward.
The final area that needs tackling, of course, is politics. The attacks from employers don’t come about because Chief Executives are individually nasty. This is about a political agenda from the Government – but we continue to hand over the cheques and give political support. Unite (Amicus Section) has a national position of ‘Two years peace for Gordon Brown’. This isn’t good enough. Our members in Health can’t afford two years peace for Gordon Brown. Going forward, there are serious questions to be asked about unconditional support for Labour, and about how we use our political fund.