NHS Pay: It’s time for a fight

May 30, 2008

The Health Sector National Committee of Unite (Amicus) met yesterday, to discuss our next move in beating the 3 year pay offer. Unite (T&G) has already rejected the offer overwhelmingly. At the time of our own meeting, we were unaware that the Royal College of Midwives has voted to reject, with 99.7% against the offer. This is surely about as convincing a majority as you can get!

It’s a pleasure attending our own Health Sector National Committee these days. The mood is one of such unity, and an absolute determination to beat three years of pay cuts.

The meeting opened with a detailed report from Head of Health Kevin Coyne. He went through the run-up to the 4th April ‘proposed agreement’ in some detail, correcting some of the more bizarre misinformation that’s out there. He also summarised our campaign so far.

Our Committee first met on pay last month. We agreed then that the offer was completely unsatisfactory, and instructed Kevin to seek to re-open negotiations and get an acceptable offer. We’d also agreed to organise meetings of our members and produce campaign material explaining why the offer is so poor.

We’ve done all that. Yesterday’s meeting praised the principled stance taken by Unite, the support for members, and the high quality campaign material produced so far. We expressed absolute confidence in the work of the Head of Heath and the Union’s negotiating team.

The Committee then considered the correspondence between the Union and the NHS Employers, and between the Union and Secretary of State for Health Alan Johnson. We had written to them making it clear that we were not a party to this ‘agreement’, regarded it as unsatisfactory, and wanted to re-open negotiations.

The response from both was disappointing but not unexpected. The letter from Alan Johnson, for example, pledges that ‘the Department remains committed to continuing to working in partnership with NHS unions on the full range of workforce and employment issues’ – great, no problem there then. Unfortunately he also comments ‘The pay deal is not up for renegotiation and therefore a meeting on this matter would not serve any constructive purpose’. It’s good to see that the commitment to partnership working is so meaningful! The disgraceful practice of signing a deal with two organisations, knowing that every other union is opposed, is dismissed by Johnson as ‘an inter-union matter’.  Are there still people who claim this man’s on the side of health workers?

It was obvious to yesterday’s meeting that we now have to take this fight on to the next stage. We voted unanimously to move to a swift consultative ballot rejecting the offer and authorising our negotiators to progress to an industrial action ballot. Nobody on the Committee believes that this offer comes close to being acceptable. The meetings with members over the last few weeks have shown overwhelming opposition. There’s no choice but to move on.

The meeting also agreed that we’d ask a sympathetic MP from our Parliamentary Group to put an Early Day Motion on pay. There was no expectation from any of us that this would be a solution – but it will be a good way of forcing MPs to choose sides. Unite has had a recent ‘clear out’ of the MPs who are conspicuously not on the side of our members (Patricia Hewitt being amongst them). It’s entirely in order to do the same again.

The meeting reconsidered the pay offer briefly. Last time we met, the word ‘crap’ was used a couple of times. Yesterday the language was stronger! One Committee member commented on the re-opener clause, saying it felt like ‘With a lot of ifs, buts, and maybes, and if Mars is in conjunction with Venus, and all the planets are in alignment, then we might, just possibly, if we feel like, just about consider the very faint possibility of re-opening discussions’. Kevin Coyne described his own negotiating experience in another sector, and said the only sound basis for a three year deal was a guarantee of a minimum ‘inflation plus whatever’, with a watertight re-opener clause for any extraordinary circumstances.

One theme of the meeting was an enormous anger against the Labour Government. One Committee member commented – with heavy irony, and to much laughter – on ‘this sympathetic Labour Government’. Another talked about the increasingly vocal view of Unite members, especially in Health, that if this is the way the Labour Party treats us, why do we go on supporting and funding them. Another said it was a disgrace that we’re being expected for their financial mistakes.

Two things have become clear since the 4th April ‘agreement’ between the RCN, Unison, the NHS Employers and the Department of Health.

Firstly, the inadequacy of the offer is becoming increasingly conspicuous, as inflation soars and the economy slides ever-deeper into crisis. Signing up to a three year deal with a re-opener close that’s barely worth the paper it’s written on is an obvious mistake.

Secondly, it’s now very clear that there will be a fight over this. The list of unions saying ‘No way’ is growing. This Government got trounced in the local government elections and in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. Labour has long-since walked away from its core voters. Those same core voters have had enough – they’re now walking away from Labour. Gordon Brown may want to pick a very public fight with health workers – but informed backbenchers might want to regard this as political suicide.

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First Unite Executive Council

May 26, 2008

Last week was the first meeting of the newly elected Unite Executive Council. It lasted for two days, unlike the one day meetings I have been used to on the Amicus NEC. I have written a full report (Unite Executive Council Report, May 21-22, 2008) for circulation to the members I represent in the Health sector but I would just like to add a couple of comments.

It is always a challenge to bring together two organisations with very different traditions. Amicus was only in existence for four years so its traditions were quite thin – primarily derived from the very bureaucratic AEEU (and before that the EEPTU) rather than the more lay-led MSF, Unifi, and GPMU. The TGWU, however, had a rule book and structure that had lasted over 50 years. There was a new language to learn. TGWU colleagues were consistently talking about “remits” – that is any motion sent from one “constitutional committee” to another for action.

In spite of the challenges around the language, I was impressed by the level of participation of the TGWU members. Some were complaining that the two day meeting seemed “rushed”. They were used to holding the full-time leadership to account, with regular reports from each of the National Officers on their respective “trade groups”.

I hope this tradition continues. I do have concerns, though. Both of our Joint General Secretaries argued for limitations on the involvement of the lay members of the Executive. They both opposed Executive Council sub-committees that could provide a more detailed oversight of areas of the Union’s work. They both opposed National Officers being required to report to the EC. The challenge facing EC members is whether we have enough confidence to ensure that the full-time officials remain responsible to the EC rather than, as so often seemed the case on the Amicus NEC, the other way round.

The other thing that struck me was that much of the discussion seemed disconnected from what was happening in the world outside the County Hall Council Chamber. Charlie Whelan, who was Gordon Brown’s “spin doctor”, and now runs the political department of the Union, mentioned as an aside that Labour was bound to lose the Crewe and Nantwich by-election the following day. The question that was not really discussed was “Why?”

Unions now provide 90% of the funding of the Labour Party – with Unite by far the biggest contributor. We have a Government, though, that continually attacks our members. The below-inflation three year pay “offer” in the NHS is just one illustration of why Labour has lost so much support. We are told by the press, although it was not discussed at the EC, that there is to be a Warwick II at the end of July. Given that Warwick I, agreed between the Trade Union leaderships and the Government before the last election, remained largely a paper promise, what can we expect from Mark II? Very little, I suspect. Maybe another face saving job meant to help Brown win the next election.

We should be using Brown’s weakness to press home our demands on pay, privatisation, and employment law. Instead, we end up doing a deal on agency working that allows Brown to save face. It is no wonder that – as fewer and fewer of our members are prepared to join or remain in the Labour Party – our General Secretaries insist that the political work of the Union has to be exclusively under the control of indvidual Labour Party members. The rest of us might have a different view on how the political fund should be used. We are Britain’s largest trade union. We need to ensure we use that strength as an effective force for our members.


FACT: You can keep spinning a pay cut but it’s still a pay cut

May 14, 2008

This is my response to the Unison leadership’s ‘FACT AND FICTION’ briefing on pay. The Unison document was a disappointing one – consisting of a direct attack on Unite and other unions, an arrogant assumption that a large union can do whatever it wants, and a series of really very weak arguments to justify three years of pay cuts.

I make no apologies for making a detailed response to Unison’s document.

The main problem writing it was trying to keep up to date with soaring prices. The figures emerging over the last few days are genuinely shocking. 

  • The Retail Price Index – ‘real’ inflation measuring increased costs to us – is now 4.2% (up from 3.8% a month ago)
  • The inflation rate on staple food items is now 19%
  • Home energy bills are set to rise by 46% by the end of the year
  • The Bank of England says that inflation will rise ‘sharply’ in the near-term

Against this backdrop, a pay offer of 2.75% this year looks very poor indeed. A pay offer that also locks us into 2.4% next year and 2.25% the year after that looks like a joke.

This is what the Governor of the Bank of England said today about inflation:

‘The near-term outlook for inflation has deteriorated markedly over the past three months. CPI inflation was 3% in April, and rising energy and import prices will almost certainly push inflation up further, possibly significantly, in the coming months. As those price increases feed through to household bills, they will lead to a squeeze on real take-home pay…’

There’s only a squeeze on real take home pay if we allow a squeeze on real take home pay. The ‘proposed agreement’ needs to be kicked out.


Abortion rights under attack

May 11, 2008

Union conferences can be – a terrible confession, this – pretty tedious affairs. At the last Unite (Amicus Section) Women’s Conference, though, one of the speakers left many of us both inspired and in tears.

The woman who spoke is someone I know well. An older woman, but still active in the Union. Someone with a genuinely impressive personal history as a trade unionist and political activist.

We were discussing a motion on defence of abortion rights. I asked my friend to speak in the debate, because – unlike most of the women there – she would remember the days of backstreet abortion, and all the horrors that went with it. I had no idea what she was going to say.

The story she told was a shocking one. As a teenager, she had been raped, and had become pregnant as a result. She had begged and borrowed the money for a backstreet abortion. The job had been botched – she almost bled to death. When she came round in hospital, she was threatened with prosecution (and treated like dirt) because it was clear she had had an abortion. Years later, as an adult, she fought hard for abortion rights. She did not want other women to go through the distress and pain she had been forced to experience herself.

Unsurprisingly, the motion was carried – from memory, unanimously.

It’s right for trade unions to take a view on abortion. Unite, quite correctly, defends the right of women to access safe, legal abortion, and is affiliated to the ‘Abortion Rights’ campaign. Women can’t have equality if they’re not allowed to control their own bodies. It’s also important to understand that abortion has always been a class issue. In Britain, before abortion was legal, richer women often had access to the relative safety of discreet private clinics. Working class women either tried a DIY job, or resorted to the backstreets.

Abortion rights are under attack, yet again. On May 20th, MPs will debate and vote on anti-abortion amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. The aim of the amendments is to lower the time limit for legal abortion. This would be the thin end of the wedge for a wider attack on abortion rights in general.

The main argument being used by anti-abortionists is that scientific and medical advances mean babies are more likely to survive at a lower gestational age. They claim that babies can survive at a gestational stage when abortion is sanctioned, so the logical thing to do is to reduce the time limit for abortion.

An important study, published last week in the British Medical Journal, showed there is no basis for the claim. The Guardian summary of the findings is here: Research Summary. The large-scale study compared survival rates in two periods: 1994 to 1999, and 2000 to 2005. Survival rates for babies born above 24 weeks gestational age had improved – supported by medical and technological advances. Survival rates for babies born below 24 weeks remained unchanged. In both periods, only 18% of babies born at 23 weeks survived (and most of those will have survived with multiple and profound disabilities). In both periods, no baby born at 22 weeks survived. The researchers concluded that the threshold of foetal viability remains unchanged.

Anti-abortionists have used a lot of lies over the years to try and attack the right to choose. This is the latest in a long line.

Anti-abortionists want to impose their own views on women – and take away the right of women to control their own bodies. The loss of abortion rights is unthinkable. There must be no return to the backstreets.

JOIN THE LOBBY OF PARLIAMENT TO COINCIDE WITH THE PARLIAMENTARY DEBATE:

Tuesday May 20th, 5.30pm to 7.00pm, outside Parliament


Fact and Fiction?

May 8, 2008

There’s an astonishing document on Unison’s website just now entitled ‘FACT AND FICTION: THE TRUTH ABOUT THE PROPOSED MULTI-YEAR AGREEMENT‘. Possibly the capital letters are intended to lend gravitas to a very suspect document!

The document works hard to justify a pay offer (not an ‘agreement’, guys, but an offer that most NHS unions have rejected). It’s also a little hard to guess from reading this that Unison’s lay members, at their Health Conference a few weeks ago, agreed to make no recommendation on the offer.

It’s disappointing that the article is to a significant extent an attack on Unite, my own union. It’s also disappointing to read the statement, ‘If UNISON and RCN members support it, there will be an agreement’. I wouldn’t personally regard this as a particularly helpful approach to joint working.

Since the document is so conspicuously an attack on my own union, and puts such a bizarrely positive spin on a truly disgraceful pay offer, I’ll be working on a detailed response to this when time allows.

For now, though, a few points deserve an immediate response. The claim is made here, ‘FACT: No one knows what the members of Unite want because their Executive chose not to consult them’. Those convincing capital letters again! In fact our Health Sector National Committee – the elected lay reps representing our members in Health – met and discussed the offer at length on 22nd April. I recall the word ‘crap’ being used a couple of times in relation to the pay offer. The unanimous view, of every elected representative, from every occupational group, and from every region, was that the offer was not fit to be put to our members.

How were we able to agree this? Because Unite members have already had a say, and the very miserable proposed offer did not come close to matching our members’ aspirations.

We believe that health workers deserve a pay increase that at least matches inflation. We want a one year deal – a three year deal in a period of economic uncertainty is a mistake of monumental proportions. The ‘re-opener’ clause in the offer doesn’t allow unions to re-open pay negotiations – instead, it leaves us entirely at the mercy of the PRB and the Secretary of State for Health. Not a lot of security there.

What else do Unite members want? A 35 hour week NOW, not some vague pledge to look at working hours when the Government gets around to it.

We’re also opposed to low pay. Unite’s national policy on low pay is for a minimum wage equivalent to the European Decency Threshold (rather than the unimpressive minimum of £6.77 in 2009/10 that this offer would provide).

I would also want to stress that – as a member of our National Executive and our Health Sector National Committee – I have NEVER heard the argument that we don’t care about low pay. I’ve also not met a single Unite member who believes that we should accept pay cuts for health workers on a living wage in order to pay for a deal that provides pay cuts for the lowest paid. This is one of the richest nations in the world. The notion that the UK can’t afford a living wage for its public sector workers is laughable.

Should we have wasted vast amounts of money on a deal that we were not party to, and that met none of our aspirations? Our senior lay reps certainly didn’t think so.

There is a further area here that probably deserves an immediate challenge. The document lists the health membership of national unions, demonstrating that Unison has more members in the NHS than other unions. I wouldn’t have thought it was particularly useful to play the numbers game – maybe how well our unions represent their members is more important. However, the membership reported here for Unite is certainly not accurate. And the claim of 470,000 NHS members in Unison is a really interesting one. Unison’s website, reporting on the pay ballot held in September 2007, notes that 362,954 ballot papers were issued. Unite’s NHS membership is growing steadily – but if Unison has increased its membership by over 100,000 in the last few months, it’s doing a truly extraordinary job!

If this rotten pay offer goes through, the losers are ALL health workers – whatever union we belong to. This is a pay offer that should not be supported.


Agenda for Change: the Northern Ireland scandal

May 8, 2008

Most of us, quite rightly, are focusing our energies on overturning the disgraceful three year pay offer agreed between RCN and Unison negotiators and the Government. It’s a recipe for three years of pay cuts. Despite the hollow claims that the deal is weighted towards low paid NHS workers, the effective pay cut will be even larger for this group. Your ‘personal inflation rate’ depends on what you spend most of your money on. I’m not sure what the price of yachts and swimming pools is these days, but food, fuel and housing costs are going through the roof. For Band 1 and Band 2 health workers, income is going to go almost entirely on meeting these essential needs. I’ve seen estimates of personal inflation for low paid workers being between 12% and 17%. In that context, the proposed 2.75% pay offer (with even worse to come) looks like a bloody big pay cut.

For some health workers, though, there are even sharper concerns. In Northern Ireland, Agenda for Change is still being implemented. There are differences between what’s happening in Northern Ireland and what happened in England and Wales. AFC in Scotland is ongoing and troubled – but can’t begin to compare with Northern Ireland.

Forget ‘pay protection’. In Northern Ireland, pay protection means protection at October 2004 levels – so ‘pay protection’ in 2008 is at whatever people were being paid 3 ½ years ago! Pay cuts are immediate. I know of one person who got their banding outcome on Friday and got a pay cut on Monday. I know of a health worker who is facing serious illness on a sharply reduced salary, and another who has just had a house sale fall through because her pay has been slashed. Remember all the claims about ‘no detriment’? Those look pretty hollow.

It gets even worse. There’s an arrangement in Northern Ireland called ‘GANI’ – which stands for ‘Government Accounting Northern Ireland’. Under GANI, there is an assumption that people have to pay back to the Government anything they have been ‘overpaid’. Completely bizarrely, this is taken to mean that health workers not only face an immediate pay cut, but also ‘owe’ the Government all the money they have supposedly been overpaid since 2004.

This is an insane and Alice in Wonderland interpretation of the Agenda for Change agreement – but the Minister concerned (one Michael McGimpsey) is insisting on this.

Very many of those who are being hit by this double whammy are speech and language therapists – my own professional group. AFC has been bad news for speech therapists generally, and my belief is that a key driver of AFC was Labour’s need to reverse our magnificent equal pay victory dating back to 2000. The danger from the Government’s perspective was that physios and OTs and a whole bunch of other NHS workers might start wanting equal pay too. AFC was a neat way of side stepping equal pay claims, and it’s a shame we let them get away with it.

What’s happening now in Northern Ireland is obviously unacceptable. I’m Chair of the Unite committee representing Speech and Language Therapists at national level. I’ve been instructed by the committee to write to every MLA (the elected representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly) urging that they intervene on behalf of speech and language therapists.

Is writing to MLAs enough? Almost certainly not. It’s essential that the health workers affected by this nonsense move swiftly to campaign and organise in their own defence. It’s also essential that Unite throws its weight behind this group of members.

Most of us just face pay cuts. The Northern Ireland situation comes dangerously close to making health workers pay the Government for the privilege of being employed. This is presumably partnership working at its very finest!

For ALL health workers, the reality is that we’ll get what we fight for – in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the UK.


We need a bit of Grangemouth

May 5, 2008

Last week, Unite members at the Grangemouth oil refinery went on strike for two days. Negotiations between the Union and the employers, Ineos, are now due to resume this week.

Press reports indicate that Ineos have withdrawn their plan to end the final salary pension scheme. This was the main issue behind the dispute, so it looks like the Unite members have won.

Many workers in the private sector have already lost their final salary schemes, so this is an important victory. Why did the Grangemouth workers win?
At one level it was pure economics. According to some economists, the oil companies lost £430 million because of the two day strike. That’s a big sum of money even for Jim Ratcliffe, the man who owns two thirds of Ineos. Ratcliffe was listed recently as the tenth richest man in the UK, with a £3.3bn fortune. And the Government reportedly lost £170 million in tax.

It wasn’t just economics though. The Unite members had to stand up to all the pressure from the press and politicians with their talk about threats to petrol supplies for ordinary motorists. The blackmail was there but was successfully resisted.

In the end, political pressure was also important. Whitehall put pressure on Ineos to settle. One source said: “Apparently, the Government was itself coming under pressure from the likes of Opec to make sure the action did not escalate.”

Health workers don’t have the economic power of the Grangemouth oil refinery works – but we do have the political power.

After Labour’s disastrous results in the local elections, the last thing they want is a confrontation with a million health workers. There is already talk in the press about Gordon Brown and the Government making concessions on food prices, petrol tax, and income tax.

Now is not the time to accept a three year pay deal that represents a year on year decline in the value of our wages. We should reject the offer and be prepared for a bit of Grangemouth. I bet we could win a decent deal in less than their two days, if we let the Government see our collective anger.