The NHS after 60

April 29, 2008

Yesterday evening I went to a book launch. It was for John Lister’s new book, The NHS after 60. John was one of the founders of London Health Emergency, 25 years ago, and has been central to campaigns to defend the NHS ever since. He has always supported the trade union movement and, in turn, Health Emergency has been mostly funded by union bodies.

John made a short speech. He made two key points. Firstly, the book was written to celebrate the ideals of the NHS at its inception. After 60 years, and much battering, he believes there is still a lot of the original NHS remaining that needs to be defended.

Secondly, he gave a warning about the pace of change. Although the book covers the full 60 year history of the NHS, two thirds of it is about the period since 2000. The Labour Government has introduced massive changes, bringing the market into all aspects of the NHS and increasing the level of privatisation, at a pace the Tories could have only dreamed about.

John has written the book as part of his campaigning work. As he says in its conclusion: “I hope this book has provided more ammunition to all those wanting to pursue this fight.” I think he has done that job.

It is often difficult in the midst of local fights over reorganisations, or defending members at the latest disciplinary, to see the big picture. Reading John’s book is a useful antidote.

John Lister, The NHS at 60, Middlesex University Press, London, 2008

Support the Grangemouth workers

April 27, 2008

Unite members at the Grangemouth oil refinery started a 48-hour strike this morning to defend their final salary pension scheme. Unite has published a good Q&A on the dispute.

Predictably, the press is not supporting them. After all, the strike might ’cause chaos at the pumps’. The teachers had the same press last week. While some papers conceded they had a case, they were all more concerned about the harm done to children by losing a day in school. I suspect the last time many of the national papers supported a strike was when some dockers came out in support of Enoch Powell in 1968.

If we took the newspapers’, and the Government’s, arguments to their conclusion, there would never be a strike. Trade unions always produce goods and services that someone else depends on. So they try to blackmail us into not taking industrial action.

It only works one way. Because our side, trade unionists, typically react to what the employers are trying to do, any disruption is our fault. There wouldn’t be a strike at Grangemouth if the very profitable Ineos weren’t trying to increase those profits at the expense of their workers. But we don’t see the Government putting a ban on their actions.

When Gordon Brown came to the last Unite-Amicus Policy Conference, he took time out to listen to the concerns of health workers over last year’s pay deal. He sympathised. But then told us pay restraint was for our own good in the long term. The Government and the press are not concerned about how we live with increasing inflation. It’s all about the macroeconomics so beloved by city financiers.

I support the Grangemouth workers because they are not just grumbling about it, they are doing something. It’s a lesson us health workers would do well to learn.

A great day for the fight over pay

April 25, 2008

briefing documentYesterday was magnificent. A national strike against lower than inflation public sector pay awards by teachers (NUT), college lecturers (UCU), and civil servants (PCS). There was a strike in Birmingham by local government workers challenging pay cuts imposed as part of “equal status”. Lastly, from my own union Unite, a national strike of Shelter workers challenging pay cuts and longer working hours.

They were all strikes against the Government’s attempts to keep wages down. Even the Shelter strike was a direct result of the Government pushing work from the public to voluntary sector and then demanding cost-cutting on the contracts.

Everywhere the spirit was high. Here are some reports and photos from around the country.

Yesterday may not have been enough to force the Government to retreat, but it showed the anger felt by hundreds of thousands. It showed that people were not simply prepared to sit back and take what they were offered.

There’s a lesson for us in the NHS. The Government, with the assistance of a couple of union leaderships, is trying to impose a rotten three year deal on us. It’s not good enough to just grumble, we need to show to the Government collectively that the deal is not acceptable to health workers.

I’ve produce a briefing document for Unite members in my Trust explaining what’s wrong with the deal. We have every major political party and the press coming out on the Government’s side, so we need to make sure our arguments get the widest circulation.

Unite has rejected the deal without a ballot. But we still have to rally our members against the deal. In my Trust we are holding a mass meeting next week to endorse our opposition. We want all of our members to be involved. The more we build up collective opposition now, the easier it will be to move to industrial action, if we need it, later.

The last ever meeting of the Amicus NEC

April 25, 2008

From 1st May, Amicus and TGWU will officially cease to exist (although a number of separate structures will continue for a few months yet).

The last ever meeting of the Amicus National Executive Council took place earlier this month. A report on the meeting is here: April 2nd,2008. Under Amicus standing orders, this is very carefully written. Amicus NEC members have been required to obey collective discipline, and we have not been allowed to report our own views or voting records.

Will Amicus be missed? I’ve found few people who will mourn for too long.

Amicus ended up as a union very clearly on the right of the labour movement. We were one of the few major national unions not to affiliate to the Stop the War Coalition. In practice we consistently supported the replacement of Trident nuclear missiles, although we eventually discovered a bit of left cover for this line. We managed to avoid taking any position on the Labour Government’s attacks on civil liberties.

The General Secretary has talked openly about the future of the trade union movement being one of managed decline. Our campaign to save jobs at Peugeot was based on a consumer boycott, as strikes and demonstrations were seen as out of date. We’ve lost confidence in the ability of our members to defend jobs, pay and conditions – so we’ve looked to winning scraps from the Labour Government instead. Amicus has given vast amounts of money to Labour – and has got little in return. We supported Gordon Brown for Labour Party leader, rather than John McDonnell. Think of the impact it could have had if Amicus had thrown its weight behind McDonnell.

The pro-New Labour politics and policies were accompanied all too often by an erosion of lay control. This has been particularly marked in the Health Sector, where traditions of lay involvement and control used to be strong. Branches have grown steadily weaker, the autonomy of our professional groups has been eroded, Regional Sector Committees vary around the country but are far weaker than when lay members convened and ran them, Regional Occupational Advisory Committees have pretty much ceased to exist…

It hasn’t all been bad, though, and it’s important to acknowledge this. Amicus has had a clear position of opposition to the privatisation and fragmentation of the NHS. We were the first major union to affiliate to Keep Our NHS Public. We initiated NHS Together. We’ve done some strong campaigning work around defence of the NHS. We’ve quite rightly opposed Lord Darzi’s proposals (nationally and in London) that will lead to worse service provision and further privatisation.

We’ve done OK on some other issues too. Our support for Defend Council Housing has been second to none. We’ve given excellent support too to Love Music Hate Racism. We have a policy of defending abortion rights.
So, a patchy picture overall. At our final NEC meeting, Derek Simpson talked about the Amicus ‘heritage’ and the need to defend Amicus values and Amicus traditions. If Amicus was the best union in the world, four years wouldn’t have been much time to establish a heritage! With all the complexities we’ve actually seen, I honestly don’t know what the Amicus heritage is.

The final report, then, is ‘Could do better’. Unite is the UK’s largest union. Simply because of our size, we will have an extraordinary weight and influence in the wider movement. The task for the Left in the new union? I believe our priority is not allowing ourselves to be fobbed off with false arguments about being loyal to ‘our’ section of the union, whether this is Amicus or the T&G. Left activists, on and off the Executive Council, have to unite around progressive politics, a union that fights hard for its members, and a union that trusts its lay members enough to allow them to run things. If we can achieve these things, this will really be a heritage to be proud of.

Unite: A unanimous vote to reject this rotten pay offer

April 22, 2008

In an impressive display of unity, Unite’s Health Sector National Committee has voted unanimously to reject the three-year pay offer. This afternoon’s well-attended meeting took less than two hours to reach this very clear position.

Not a single member of the Committee thought the offer was acceptable. None of us had spoken to a single member who regarded the offer as acceptable.

After discussion, we agreed that we do not need to ballot members. This is not an offer that we had any part in negotiating. This is not an offer that is acceptable to us or to Unite members. We know this – we don’t need a ballot to confirm a very clear and straightforward position. The Committee wanted to send the sharpest and clearest message we possibly could, to both the Government and the NHS Employers. We agreed that this was the best way to do it. We want to see pay negotiations with all unions re-opened, and an improved offer to put to our members.

There was enormous anger about the pay offer, and about the attempt by the Government to tie health workers to what in all probability would be three years of pay cuts. There was also real anger at the divisive behaviour of Unison and the RCN. Speakers in the debate made a point of rejecting the false claim that Unite isn’t interested in sorting out low pay – and said that the solution to low pay wasn’t to impose pay cuts for other health workers.

Of course there were different views in the meeting, and areas where sharp debate took place. Some thought we should accept the 2.75% Pay Review Body recommendation; others thought that it made no sense at all to accept a pay cut in Year 1 but reject it in Years 2 and 3. However, the PRB recommendation wasn’t on the table anyway – so we agreed to unite around our priority of rejecting the three-year offer.

There is growing concern around the role of the Pay Review Body, and this was expressed by many speakers in today’s meeting. The PRB has recommended pay awards less than inflation for the last two years. The PRB is recommending removal of Recruitment and Retention Premia for our maintenance craft members –  a real and significant threat. The PRB’s remit means that it is heavily influenced by the Government and the employers. The Government effectively opted out of being bound by the PRB when it staged last year’s award; this year’s offer means that the Government, NHS Employers, Unison and the RCN have all effectively opted out of acceptance of the PRB recommendation. Existing Unite (Amicus Section) policy is for support of the Pay Review Body – but there was agreement today that we need to take these growing concerns back to our Health Sector Conference in June.

This was a good meeting. People talked about the need for Unite to show leadership, and the need to defend our members. The unanimous rejection of the three-year proposal was real, solid, and impressive.

Union negotiators STILL recommend pay cuts!

April 18, 2008

Unison activists at Health Conference quite rightly did NOT endorse the 3-year pay offer negotiated by Unison and RCN.

The challenge, of course, is that the ‘union machine’ can be brought to bear to encourage a particular outcome. This isn’t a problem peculiar to Unison – it happened in my own union when the leadership wanted to force through Agenda for Change, for example.

There’s an interesting little article here from Unison’s website that in my view puts a strong spin in support of the deal, just after a conference where activists were fiercely critical of what’s on offer.

It’s worth challenging the sleight of hand being used to push 3 years of pay cuts.

A lively and full debate?
The debate is described as ‘lively and full’ – a convenient short-hand for a whole load of speakers expressing strong disagreement with what their negotiators have got for them.

RCN and Unison use different calculators!
The percentage uplifts are described by Unison as being worth 8.1% in total, over 3 years. The RCN – the joint signatory to the offer – does its sums differently. According to the RCN, the deal is worth ‘up to 7.99%’ – and that’s only for staff on bands one, five, and the bottom of band six.

The RCN reports that the proposals are worth ‘at least 7.6% for all staff’ – a figure rather lower than the 8.1% put about by Unison. Actually, it’s worth doing the sums. A cumulative percentage increase of 2.75%, 2.4% and 2.25% works out at 7.58% increase over the 3 years of the proposed deal. So the RCN is rounding up, and it’s very unclear what Unison is doing.

Unison continues to report percentage increases of 2.75%, 2.54% and 2.5% over the 3 years. This is misleading – the actual percentages, stated quite clearly in the proposed agreement, are 2.75%, 2.4% and 2.25%. The discrepancy is presumably accounted for by the small concessions achieved for designated groups. This is not made clear.

Do the lowest paid benefit?
The Unison article boasts that the offer is weighted towards the lower paid, increases the minimum wage to above Unison’s target, and is a step towards merging bands one and two. Well, maybe. But worth a more detailed look.

• The offer is weighted towards the lower paid according to Unison. The RCN, on the other hand, nods in the direction of the low paid, but then talks about how the proposals will ‘better reward nurses on bands five and six’. In fact the lowest paid NHS workers will get the standard 2.75% in Year 1 (a pay cut).

In Year 2, the abolition of the bottom spine point will deliver a decent percentage increase – 5.72% – for the smallish numbers of staff on spine point one, in their very first year of employment, right at the bottom of pay band one. All other low paid workers, including everyone else on the disgracefully low band one salaries, will get the standard 2.4%. It is a virtual certainty that this too will be a pay cut – including for the low paid.

And how about Year 3, with the flat rate payment of an additional £420? A not very spectacular £420 will be worth rather less in ‘real’ money by 2010, of course. Even with the £420 to NHS workers on bands one to three, the overall percentage increase varies between a magnificent 3.17% for those earning £13653 a year and 2.31% for the lucky individuals earning as much as £18,577 a year. Financial instability makes it difficult to estimate what inflation will be by 2010/11 – but a lot of expert commentators are reckoning on around 4%. So the lowest paid are set for a pay cut in Year 3 too.

It isn’t untrue to say the offer is weighted towards Unison’s lower paid members, but a likely 3 years of pay cuts isn’t much of an achievement! And an NHS starting salary that is set at £12,517 for 2008/09 is a wage that I regard as an insult to health workers.

• So how about this increase of the starting salary to a level above Unison’s minimum wage? Well, kind of. Unison decided in October 2007 that the minimum wage should be at least £6.75 an hour. That will not be achieved for health workers until 2009, when the very lowest paid will be getting £6.77 an hour – a whole 2p above Unison’s minimum wage! But how about inflation? In the past, Unison has updated its calls for a living minimum wage in line with inflation. Why not now? Prices will clearly go up between October 2007 and April 2009, and are set to rise very sharply indeed over the next few months. To meet an October 2007 aspiration in April 2009 is no great achievement – and is arguably an attempt to make this pay offer appear better than it is.

• Is the eventual abolition of the bottom spine point of band one really a step towards doing away with band one altogether? Maybe national negotiators have inside information on this – they’re clearly a lot closer to the Government than I am. But you could see agreement on a very minor tweak to the truly miserable salaries of band one as being an effective endorsement of poverty pay. That’s my take on it.

Can the amounts be revised if inflation increases?
Unison’s material notes ‘a clause allowing the figures for years 2 and 3 to be revisited via evidence to the NHS pay review body if economic circumstances warrant it’. That’s absolutely true. The clause allows for years 2 and 3 to be revisited. But does the clause guarantee that years 2 and 3 will be revisited, if inflation rises sharply? Sadly not. The proposed agreement actually says, ‘In the event that the NHS PRB receive and identify new evidence of a significant and material change in recruitment and retention and wider economic and labour market conditions, they may request a remit from the Secretary of State to review the increases set out in this agreement for 2009/10 and/or 2010/11′.

So it’s up to the PRB – yes, the body that has recommended below-inflation awards for the last two years. Even worse, it’s up to the Secretary of State – that nice Alan Johnson who wants to cut our pay for the next three years. Our unions get no say at all. This is about as weak a commitment to review as you could possibly get. No local activist would let a local employer get away with an agreement like that.

Is there any commitment to a more fundamental review of pay structures?
No. Unison comments on ‘commitments to talks on reducing the number of pay points in other long pay bands and negotiations on Unison’s claim for a progressive reduction’. What does the proposed agreement actually say on this? ‘The parties have agreed to further talks within the three year period on proposals to reduce the number of incremental pay points (starting with bands 6 and 7) that are affordable within the context of future pay awards’.

So the commitment is to talks, not to any concessions from the Government. Even worse, it’s all dependent on the Government saying changes are ‘affordable’. Interestingly, we start with bands 6 and 7 – I wonder if this paragraph was negotiated by the RCN, as it obviously offers nothing at all to Unison’s lower-paid members? Most importantly, why should a Government that’s so hell-bent on slashing public sector pay suddenly give us faster progression through pay bands?

Which rate of inflation was that?
Unison’s report comments, ‘…conference recognised that it does not meet union policy calling for a “substantial” pay rise above RPI inflation, though the first year’s increase is more than the CPI inflation rate of 2.5%’.

Every trade unionist who has ever negotiated on pay knows that we bargain around RPI as the real rate of inflation, not CPI – the Government’s (much lower) measure. Why on earth is CPI introduced here?

This is the Unison Bargaining Support comment from March 2007:
‘The RPI should not be confused with the Consumer Prices Indices (CPI). CPI is the government’s official measure of inflation and forms the basis for the government’s inflation target. The methods used to calculate CPI are subtly different to RPI, allowing it to be used for international comparisons. A more detailed explanation of CPI is also included in this factsheet. Unison Bargaining Support strongly advises that CPI is not used as the basis for pay negotiations, because it does not take account of most housing costs’.

As trade unionists, we should absolutely reject any attempts – from the Government or union full timers – to talk up a poor offer by comparing it with CPI. Year 1 of the pay offer is a significant pay cut, and there’s no question about that at all.

Industrial Action?
It’s clear from the Unison report that members will be asked if they are ‘prepared to take lawful industrial action to secure a higher award’.

Industrial action is an interesting one. It’s worth remembering that members of PCS, NUT and UCU will be on strike next week against Government-imposed pay cuts. How did they win this? It’s stating the obvious – through union leaderships that gave a lead and backed their members. When members believe they have a strong union that stands with them, they will vote for industrial action. If there’s just vague talk of ‘industrial action’ – with members given no sense of support from the union and no vision that they can win – the risk is that this is a neat trick for destroying confidence rather than building it.

It’s worth remembering that this appallingly bad offer is only on the table because Unison and the RCN broke ranks with every other union to do their own deal. We don’t even know what might have been achieved through negotiation – because of the attempts of the Government, and the leaderships of Unison and the RCN to bounce all health workers into agreeing this.

Where now?
Unison and RCN national negotiators are out of line on this one. Unison’s own Service Group Executive was unwilling to endorse the offer ‘won’ for them by negotiators.

Three years of pay cuts – forced through by one union and one professional organisation breaking ranks with everyone else – would weaken the union movement across the NHS, and would weaken the fight to defend the NHS. The outcome of this really matters. In Unison, I very much hope to see a successful campaign to achieve a ‘No’ vote. The response from every other union must be a robust, ‘No way – we’re not having it’. This disgraceful offer has to be kicked out.

Pay: It’s all up for grabs

April 16, 2008

Unison’s Conference eventually decided to put the three-year pay cut to a ballot of members, with no recommendation.  A comment from Nick Holden, Service Group Executive member, was, ‘No one no-one seemed to think the offer was good enough. The disagreements were ones of tactics’. This is very far from the ringing endorsement that Unison’s national negotiators will have been wanting to see.

A Nursing Times online poll of more than 2,400 NT readers found 71% said they did not want to accept the offer and 75% were unhappy with the idea of a multi-year deal.

The Unite (TGWU) Health Committee is already recommending rejection.

The Unite (Amicus) Health Sector National Committee is meeting on 22nd April, with every likelihood of a recommendation to reject the deal. My own view is that this offer isn’t even fit to be put to the members. The strongest negotiating position would be to say to the Government, ‘We’re not having it – make us a serious offer’.

The smaller professional unions were not part of the original Unison/RCN deal, and were quite rightly angry about the divisive tactics on show, and the complete inadequacy of the offer.

So, where now? There are good prospects now for kicking out this rotten offer. There are better prospects yet if we make common cause with the NUT, PCS and UCU members who are on strike on 24th April. 

Gordon Brown got away with slashing public sector pay last year. The lack of a serious fight in 2007 gave him the confidence to try now for a further three years of pay cuts. With price increases in fuel, food, imports, and – for a growing number of people – mortgages, this is the time for all public sector unions to make a stand.