Unite Health Conference: Why we have to defend our members AND the NHS

As the Government rolls out its next wave of privatisation, the need for strong trade union organisation in the NHS has never been clearer.

Is Unite doing the job? Partly, is probably the fairest answer.

Some of the best discussions this week were around the bars before and after Conference. The Labour Party is in debt, to the tune of some £17 or £18 million. Labour has lost its corporate donors and most of its individual donors. Around 90% of Labour Party funding now comes from trade unions, with Unite being the biggest donor.

There was a widespread agreement from Unite Health members (including long standing Labour Party members) that it’s time to say to Brown, ‘Right, stop the privatisation, stop the pay cuts’ – and that we should stop handing over the cheques if we don’t get results.

 Unite isn’t doing that yet. Instead, after the miserable failures of the Warwick Agreement, we’re going out to negotiate ‘Warwick 2′. Health workers have had enough. It’s time to stand up to Labour, not just beg for the occasional concession. The politics at the top of the Union have a profound impact on what we’re able to deliver for our members.

The Conference itself was a generally serious and workmanlike affair, with resolutions relating primarily to Government attacks on the NHS. Pay was obviously a major item for us. We’re absolutely confident that Unite (Amicus) will join the growing list of NHS unions unwilling to accept this very poor offer. I’m still looking for a Unite member who supports the 3 year offer. I haven’t met one yet!

Incidentally, if the pay offer is so great for low paid health workers, this does raise the question of why Unite (TGWU) members – including many porters, cleaners and catering workers – voted to reject by six to one.

A sharp motion on out of hours working sought to ensure that our negotiators will not settle for on-call arrangements that are to the detriment of our members.

We reiterated our commitment to a 35 hour week for all health workers. It makes no sense that workloads are going up all the time, and that we work more and more unpaid hours to cope with this situation. Why should it be unreasonable to expect fair pay, decent working conditions, and an acceptable work-life balance? And what an indictment of today’s NHS if these things are unachievable.

We highlighted the openly contemptuous treatment of our members in Northern Ireland, as Agenda for Change is implemented very badly and very late. We also instructed the Union to resist regional pay, to campaign for a mileage rate that reflects the actual costs to our members, and to tweak its structures to allow the needs of our members in Scotland to be met more easily. We talked about the importance of public health, and also about how we wanted to return the National Blood Service to the socialist principles on which it was founded.

A clear majority of motions were, quite rightly, about defence of the NHS. Speaking in one of the debates, I talked about our members making a conscious choice to work in the NHS, and doing so because of our commitment to the values of the NHS – caring for vulnerable people not seeking to make money out of them. With a Government set on dismantling the NHS, it’s essential that our unions emerge as the strong defenders of publicly funded and publicly controlled health care.

So we had motions seeking to establish some level of accountability for Foundation Trusts – quite clearly being used as a tool to break up any concept of an integrated NHS. We‘ll be campaigning against the privatisation of pathology services – a centrally important issue for many of our members. We’ll fight hard to defend District General Hospitals, recognising that hospital closures place lives at risk. We condemned the Government’s damaging love affair with PFI, noting that the vast profits made for private consortiums threaten the viability of NHS hospitals, and we called for nationalisation of these enormous private sector projects.

And, importantly, we talked about how to rebuild our own organisation to meet the ongoing attacks we face. We’ve instructed our National Officer and Health Sector National Committee to put together coherent strategies for the defence of primary care, against the privatisation of pathology, and against the wider privatisation, fragmentation and job loss ripping the NHS apart. We called for the resources, reps meetings, briefings and campaigns that can turn paper policies into something far more real.

This was a down to earth conference, with careful debate but a remarkable degree of unity. Many of the divisions that used to be around between the left and the right in the Union’s Health Sector have simply disappeared. There’s a straightforward agreement that the NHS is under vicious attack, and that it’s our job as trade unionists to defend our own jobs and pay and to defend the services we provide.

We’ve got no illusions that this is going to be easy. The challenge for Unite members – and for other NHS trade unionists – is to be very honest about the serious attacks we face, but to put in the careful, detailed, determined work that can start to push back the Government and the employers.

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