Cash for bankers; cuts for workers

September 29, 2008

So, the Government has announced plans to nationalise Bradford and Bingley. More accurately, the Government has announced plans to nationalise the bank’s £50bn of debts. The assets – £20 bn of savings and branch business – will be bought by rival Abbey, now part of the giant banking group Santander.

I’m generally in favour of nationalisation, but this is about protecting the profits of the super-rich at the expense of ordinary workers. The bankers get the assets; we get the debts. As the market slides deeper and deeper into chaos, it might also be time to ask why we continue the headlong dash to privatisation of the NHS in England.

While Brown and his mates continue to find billions to bail out the spivs and speculators, health workers are expected to exist on three years of pay cuts. We’ve had a 2.75% increase imposed on us this year, with plans for 2.4% next year, and 2.25% the year after that. The unions that were daft enough to negotiate this deal have understandably gone rather quiet about what a great victory this is.

Unite’s position has been one of principled opposition to pay cuts for our members in Health. Our members voted by 95% to 5% to reject the three year deal, and asked the Union to progress to a ballot on industrial action.

Over the summer, we’ve had a process of consultation with members on what sort of action they want to see. Progress has been quite slow – but a ballot in July or August would probably have made little sense.

Our Health Sector National Committee met at the end of last week to review where we are with this dispute. Regional consultation meetings have mostly finished, with two outstanding. Work has been done around the membership database, and identifying each individual employer in the NHS. Interestingly, the Government can impose a single pay deal across the whole NHS, but our dispute has to be on the basis of balloting individual employers.

Final administrative work will continue over the next couple of weeks, with ballot papers to go out in late October, and industrial action hopefully in late November or early December. Members will be balloted on strike action and action short of strike action, with a recommendation to vote ‘Yes’ to both questions.

It’s very many years since we’ve had national industrial action in the Health Sector of Unite (or our predecessor unions). There’s no question that our members are incredibly angry – but it doesn’t automatically follow from this that the confidence and organisation are there to deliver industrial action. What is clear, though, is that attitudes are hardening. When we started this dispute, the debates on our Health Sector National Committee were around whether or not we would settle for the Pay Review Body recommendation of 2.75% in a single year deal. I haven’t heard that argument for a good few months now.

Last week, our senior lay reps expressed their determination to build a real fight on pay. One said we were absolutely united in rejecting the appalling three year pay offer, and we needed to take effective industrial action. Another said we couldn’t delay – the time for action was now. I argued strongly that we need collective action across the whole of our Health Sector – this would be the most powerful way of building confidence and strength. Others agreed, saying that piecemeal action wouldn’t have the effect we need, that we had to have everyone taking action together, that options short of strike action – not doing our paper work or whatever – wouldn’t have an impact. We had quite a careful discussion on the impact of industrial action on patients, with agreement that emergency cover under trade union control was the most principled approach. None of us wants to hurt patients – but nor can we sit back while the Government slashes our pay year on year, while NHS privateers rake in the money.

There wasn’t quite a unanimous view on the need for strike action now. One person argued for waiting until next year. Another supported the notion of bits and pieces of action at departmental or Trust level, rather than a united fight back. These were minority positions, though. Overwhelmingly, there was a recognition that we must do the work now to deliver united strike action now.

Do we have a clear position yet on what action we’re going for? Frustratingly, not yet – and this will be decided in a few weeks time. Is it a dead cert that we’ll win a ballot? No – there’s a lot of work to be done, and activists have to move heaven and earth to deliver a ‘Yes’ vote. Is this winnable? Too bloody right it is. This Government finds billions to bail out the bankers. In this context, a decent pay award for health workers is small change. Perhaps Gordon and Alistair could check their trouser pockets.


Mad – and getting madder

September 23, 2008

It’s increasingly difficult for rational people to understand Government policy on the NHS. As the idiocies pile up, one on top of another, the only clear game plan seems to be to create chaos. This is a great excuse for announcing in a few years that the NHS just isn’t working, we can’t afford it anymore, a US style system makes more sense… And while we drift steadily in that direction, there are of course big bucks to be made by the private sector along the way.

The latest bit of idiocy is the plan to bypass all existing consultation processes in order to close down hospitals. The HSJ story explains how this will work.

The inevitable consequence of Government policy is that a load of hospitals will be forced into financial crisis. Hospitals have been saddled with huge PFI debts at the same time as their income has been slashed. Independent Sector Treatment Centres have been encouraged to cream off the cheapest and easiest cases, leaving hospitals with fewer and more costly patients. Darzi’s proposals are about pulling enormous chunks of health care out of hospitals and shifting it into (privately run) polyclinics. A lot of District General Hospitals also face the closure of A&E units, maternity units and children’s wards under Darzi’s plans. So, fewer ‘customers’, and a reduced income stream.

Having forced hospitals into financial ruin, the Government now proposes to punish them by arbitrarily closing them down. The estimate is that 2.1% of NHS and Foundation trusts will fail each year. This isn’t clinical failure (i.e. poor patient care). This is financial failure, of hospitals that have been driven into deficit as a direct result of Government policy.

The plan is that a ‘special trust administrator’ will draft a report on the organisation’s failure, a quick and dirty 30 day consultation will follow, and the Secretary of State will take a final decision to close down hospitals after 35 days. Existing consultation requirements under the 2006 NHS Act will not apply. Local people will have little or no say. Council ‘Health Scrutiny Committees’ will be sidelined.

A Department of Health spokesman said, ‘The existence of a robust, transparent, unsustainable provider regime will act as a spur to improve NHS performance’. Many normal people would struggle to see how closing hospitals improves NHS performance, but there you go.

A rather saner NHS Chief Executive commented, ‘Continuity of care and continued access to essential hospital services must be preserved… NHS hospitals are not commercial enterprises – we can’t just shut up shop due to financial bankruptcy’.

The ‘NHS failure regime’ is now out for consultation. Trade unions, patient groups and professional organisations may wish to respond.

Public sector pay

September 22, 2008

Apologies for a quiet two weeks! I’ve had the TUC, a Unite Executive Council meeting, and pretty much back to back meetings in between times.

Pay for the UK’s public sector workers – close to six million of us – has become a centrally important political issue. The outcome of the current conflict over Brown’s ‘pay restraint’ policy really matters.

Quite obviously this is a key issue for public sector workers. We’re being told that we have to pay for an economic crisis that isn’t of our making. We’re being told that we have take a pay cut – last year, this year, and for years to come – at a time when fuel and food bills are rocketing. This has real and serious implications for the quality of life for health workers, local government workers, civil servants, teachers and other education workers… There’s real hardship out there, for us and our families. It’s no wonder that the levels of anger and bitterness are escalating. We need a fightback.

Pay matters for the quality of public services too. I sometimes meet health campaigners who take quite a simplistic view that trade unions are selfish and greedy because ‘all they care about is what their members are paid’. This is just a wrong analysis. Trade unions are not beyond criticism, but if health workers are treated like dirt, face year on year pay cuts, are bullied at work, constantly threatened with privatisation and redundancy – how, under those circumstances, are we going to get high quality health care? The same is true for the rest of the public sector. If we value public services, we have to value our public service workers.

Public sector pay matters for the Government. Alistair Darling spoke at the TUC, and his message on public sector pay cuts was along the lines of ‘Tough shit’. The challenge for the Labour Government is that it faces a growing chance of wipe out at the next General Election. Alienating six million workers and their families is a good move if you’re hell bent on electoral suicide, but it’s hardly a vote winner.

And public sector pay is also crucial for the credibility of the TUC and every union that represents public sector workers. If unions can’t stop an attack of this magnitude on such a large number of people, we’re very conspicuously failing to do our job.

So, where are we now? It’s a mixed picture.

The TUC voted for a strong resolution that encourages co-ordinated industrial action amongst unions in dispute, that opposes privatisation, and that organises days of action including a major national demonstration against the Government’s pay policy. This is brilliant. Activists in every union with public sector members have to push hard to make the promises of action a reality. Public sector workers have real industrial muscle, but we tend to forget this. Solid action across several unions will be a powerful illustration of how strong we are, and will build confidence on the ground. The NUT and the PCS are balloting on industrial action. Unite’s health membership is due to ballot in the next few weeks. The TUC should move urgently to set a date for a ‘day of action’. November would be good! This remains a winnable fight.

The vote at the TUC for the composite motion on public sector pay was unanimous. The public display of unity unfortunately conceals a number of tensions. Informal reports in the days before Congress indicated that a massive row was simmering in the background. I stress the reports are entirely informal, and I can’t vouch for their accuracy – but the stories from several different sources are consistent. It seems that most unions agreed on the need to roll their separate resolutions on public sector pay into a single ‘composite’ motion, but then couldn’t agree on the content. Representatives of Unison wanted a long and worthy resolution that made the right noises but called for no action at all; other unions (including NUT, PCS and Unite) wanted something more robust. The ‘good guys’ won, more or less.

Are the leaderships of all our unions committed to the united action called for in the resolution? Sadly that’s questionable. Unison, as the biggest public sector union, negotiated the NHS pay deal that means three years of pay cuts. Reports emerged at Congress – days after the show of unity on pay – that Unison negotiators had told local authority employers that there would be no further industrial action on pay in England and Wales (and Unison has now gone to arbitration on local authority pay). When unions go down the road of subordinating the interests of their members to the perceived interests of a vicious right-wing Government, they do a disservice to their own members and to the union movement as a whole.

At Congress itself, tensions over pay were clear in the debate on an amendment from the Prison Officers Association. The POA quite rightly wanted to turn the TUC ‘days of action’ into ‘days of strike action’. This makes sense. The Government, sinking further and further into a quagmire of reaction, isn’t going to listen to a bit of huffing and puffing from unions. They’ll shift when we make them. Strike action fits.

Our unions are very divided on this one. On a show of hands at Congress, the vote on the POA amendment was extremely close. The President called for a card vote.  The role of Unite became pivotal. A Unite delegation meeting the previous night had believed that the POA amendment calling for strike action was part of the main composite motion, which Unite was clearly supporting. When it came to the debate and the vote, delegates used their initiative, went with their instincts, and voted overwhelmingly to support the POA amendment for strike action.

On the card vote, things became more confused. The lay Chair of the delegation had not been given the card to enable us to take part in a card vote. While the vote for the POA amendment was taking place, the card could not be found. It was located just as the President called for card votes against the amendment. The Unite Chair was asked by senior officials (from the Amicus and T&G sides of the union) to use the Unite vote to vote against. Quite rightly he refused. Voting against the amendment would have meant voting against the clear wishes of our elected delegates. Unite therefore did not vote. If Unite had voted in favour of the amendment, it would have been carried very comfortably. In the event, the amendment was lost.

There are other problems too. I’m picking up on informal reports that a delegate meeting of UCU activists in Further Education has voted (very narrowly) against further industrial action on pay this year. The issue here isn’t a leadership that’s in bed with Labour, but a lack of confidence amongst senior activists that it’s possible to fight and win. This is a real disappointment (and highlights the need for the united action called for by the TUC, to overcome the lack of confidence that’s out there).

So, an overall picture that’s maybe like the curate’s egg – ‘good in parts’. We have a large public sector workforce, with high union density, angry, and being treated like dirt. We have a Government that’s discredited, as weak as it has ever been, but still very, very nasty indeed. We have some union leaderships who are fighting hard for the interests of their members; others who are ambivalent; others again who are running away from a fight so as not to rock the boat for Gordon Brown. The TUC needs to get its act together, and implement the decisions of Congress. Union activists have to remind the bureaucracy at the top of the unions that they’re here to represent us, not Gordon Brown. We also have to build our own confidence and organisation locally, regionally and nationally – not just within each union, but across union boundaries.

The potential for a fight on pay is still very obviously there – this year for some of our unions, and next year for all of us. This is still a fight that can be won. There are six million workers out there who aren’t willing to pay for the idiocies of greedy bankers.

Trade Union Co-ordinating Group: A step in the right direction

September 10, 2008

I’m at the TUC this week. There have been some real highlights – the prospect for co-ordinated industrial action on public sector pay being one of them. I’ll do a fuller report on this another time.

There have also been some real lows. Alistair Darling came to speak to Congress this afternoon. A question and answer session was astonishingly stage managed, with a very clear intention of giving Darling an easy ride. Questions had to be submitted in advance. There were a good few reports – likely to be well-founded – of ‘difficult’ questions (or unwelcome questioners) simply being struck off the list. Darling had a few tired little phrases that were repeated many times, with some limited variation. ‘Times are tough’. ‘We’ll get through it together’. ‘Our priority is economic stability’. ‘Our purpose is fairness’.

His message on public sector pay (and most other questions) was essentially ‘Get stuffed’. But we’re not to worry, because we’ll get through it together, and the Government is apparently ‘on the side of families and businesses’. Some delegates applauded. Many, though, were disgusted by a man who was so far out of touch with the real poverty and desperation facing far too many workers. It’s a shame that the session was set up to make it almost impossible for that anger and frustration to be expressed.

The best fringe meeting I’ve attended, by a very long way, was the launch meeting of the ‘Trade Union Co-ordinating Group’. This was convened by John McDonnell – one of the very few decent socialist MPs left in the Labour Party – with Bob Crow (RMT), Jeremy Dear (NUJ), Mark Serwotka (PCS) and Matt Wrack (FBU) on the platform.

There were around 150 Congress delegates in the room. There was a real buzz and vibrancy and optimism to the meeting. The speakers didn’t do the mealy mouthed nonsense of praising Labour for all the wonderful achievements and then adding as an afterthought that they were just a teeny weeny bit concerned about public sector pay being slashed, or public services being taken apart. They told the truth – and it was refreshing.

A few soundbites from a good meeting:

Bob Crow talked about the danger of unity in support of the Labour Government being the ‘unity of the graveyard’. He predicted a mass wipe out for Labour at the next general election unless there were fundamental policy changes.

Jeremy Dear said there were a couple of words that summed up why we had to have a new direction. There were actually a few combinations of ‘a couple of words’: ‘Gordon Brown’, ‘Alistair Darling’, ‘John Hutton’ and ‘New Labour’.

Matt Wrack talked about the complete disconnection of the rich, and the absurdly low tax rates of the rich. He used the example of Catherine Zeta Jones. The poor woman has a really terrible time. She thinks of a pair of shoes that would be absolutely wonderful with an outfit, but then realises they’re in Bermuda. She has to buy duplicates of everything, apparently. He wholeheartedly condemned New Labour’s commitment to neoliberalism – an absolute worship of the market.

Mark Serwotka attacked Alistair Darling’s hypocrisy. Darling had claimed the Government was creating jobs – but they’d cut 100,000 civil service jobs, and privatised more jobs than Margaret Thatcher and John Major put together. If he said to his members, ‘Keep your head down and vote Labour in 2010 because David Cameron’s even worse’, they’d say ‘I don’t pay my subs to listen to that sort of crap’.

So what’s this project all about? It’s real progress that a number of unions are starting to work together industrially. The Executives of the RMT, PCS, NUJ and FBU want to extend that to political work. They want political representation in Parliament that is accountable to unions and prepared to abide by union policies. They’ve out together a very basic ‘common sense’ set of political priorities that are likely to be part of the policies of every TUC-affiliated union. The priorities are around an end to privatisation, trade union rights, the eradication of low pay, equalities legislation that will end pay discrimination, better health and safety legislation, and the promotion of global justice. What is there in this package to disagree with? And how shocking, when you think about it, that this straightforward set of objectives is so totally at odds with what Labour is now doing.

We’ll be looking at unions that are part of the Trade Union Co-ordinating Group working together politically. They’ll expect union-backed MPs to sign up these basic principles. They’ll try and end the false separation of industrial work and political work. They’ll try and make sure that the interests of their members are never subordinated to the interests of any political party.

In the meeting, senior representatives of the POA, the Bakers Union and NAPO also indicated that their Executives would be discussing support for this new group.

It makes sense to me. We need something far better than the truly rotten political representation we’ve got just now. This is a sound idea, and a good time to launch this kind of initiative. There’ll be unions that don’t sign up for this, or not for a good long while anyway – but the existence of this Group will help members of unions like Unite and Unison call to account the political representatives who treat trade unionists with contempt.

This was a step in the right direction. There are no guarantees that this initiative will take off – but it could do. This should be wholeheartedly supported.

“Closure of A&E is the start of huge cuts”

September 6, 2008

That’s the headline in yesterday’s ‘London Lite’,  one of the free sheets distributed in London. The article is about NHS cuts in Enfield. These particular cuts have been on the cards for a while, but now have the seal of approval from the Secretary of State for Health.

The report is that Chase Farm Hospital will lose its A&E department in a decision said to mark ‘the beginning of sweeping cuts to health services’. Alan Johnson has supported proposals to replace it with an ‘urgent care centre’ that will not be open at night. The hospital’s maternity unit will be downgraded, losing its consultants and being replaced with a midwife-led unit.

These cuts are of course completely consistent with Darzi’s (and Labour’s) plans for London as a whole. Beneath the rhetoric of ‘better healthcare for Londoners’ lies a very nasty reality of cuts and closures.

It’s been harder than many of us would have liked to build campaigns like Keep Our NHS Public. The challenge has been that most members of the public just haven’t believed what we’re saying. Those of us with the time and the inclination to wade through many hundreds of pages of waffle in the ‘consultation’ exercises know fine well that the agenda is one of privatisation, fragmentation and reduced access to healthcare. Persuading people that this is real has been difficult.

This is set to change. If you pitch up to your A&E in the middle of the night and find it’s closed, will you believe that reassuring little mantra of ‘better healthcare’?  If you’re a woman giving birth, facing a medical emergency, being ferried across London looking for a maternity unit that still has doctors, worried that you or your baby will die – will you believe that this is ‘better healthcare’? Of course not.

The challenge for Labour is that rolling out their plans for the NHS means closing real NHS services for real people – in London and across England.  Real people have an uncomfortable habit of getting organised and fighting back once they see for themselves what’s happening. That’s how we smashed Maggie Thatcher’s poll tax. We need to build the same fight now to defend the NHS.

NHS Pay – The fight that is NOT over

September 3, 2008

Most of us will be aware of soaring inflation every time we go to the supermarket, or each time an electricity or gas bill turns up. RPI (the real rate of inflation) was 5.3% in July, up from 4.8% in June. This is before the shocking rises in utility prices feed through. The National Statistics summary is here. The August figures – due on 16th September – will be even higher.

The Bank of England’s ‘August Inflation report’ makes the rather obvious statement ‘…. the recent increases in individual prices have been very sharp. And they have been concentrated in goods that are both necessities and purchased frequently, increasing both their visibility and their impact on households’ monthly budgets’.

The three year pay deal – negotiated by Unison and RCN, and imposed by the Government – looks ever more inadequate. This year’s award of 2.75% is half of what we would need just to stand still. Even worse, we’re intended to be locked into a three year deal, with 2.4% awaiting us next year, and 2.25% the year after this. The deal was a mistake. No one can be in any doubt about that at all.

Back in June, Unite members voted overwhelmingly against, with 95% giving a resounding ‘No’ to the deal. We also voted to progress to a formal ballot on industrial action.

That position remains unchanged. Our national pay strategy meeting took place today – a positive and quite bouncy meeting. We’re part way through a campaign now, having launched a national petition, and an open letter for reps to circulate to all members. We’re holding activists meetings across the country, to consult on what industrial action members want to see. The plan is to hold the ballot for industrial action in late October.

The demands are pretty straightforward. We reject the three year deal. We want to renegotiate now. We want at least the rate of inflation for our members.

This wasn’t a decision making meeting – that’ll take place once all the activists meetings are over. The meeting was more about reviewing where we are, and what needs to happen to drive this campaign forward.

There are some real positives. There’s a growing mood across a number of public sector unions – including Unite, PCS and NUT – for coordinated industrial action. There are 6 million public sector workers in the UK – why fight separately when we can fight together and be far stronger? There are some good motions going forward to the TUC next week. And within Unite, the ‘Cut My Pay – No Way’ campaign is for our members across the public sector (primarily health, local authorities and Ministry of Defence). That unity is important. It’s a key way of giving confidence to members who are being clobbered by reorganisation and privatisation.

There are other positives:

A lay activist from Wirral Hospital NHS Trust talked about their recent dispute over moving from weekly to monthly pay. Members had started off unconfident and unsure about taking action – and ended up (after a two week overtime ban and two days strike action) with massive gains. The members who had been so worried about taking action ended up feeling ten feet tall. The dispute shows very clearly that health workers can strike and win.

The reports from the first two activists meetings were of absolute agreement that the three year deal is unacceptable, and absolute agreement that we have to take industrial action to boot it out.

There are other things that are harder. A lot of our members do lack confidence. The constant attacks of recent years have done real damage. We talked about the need for leadership, and to mobilise our activists around the country. It’s also clear that union structures are a bit more ‘creaky’ than we’d like – we’re producing the badges and posters and petitions and postcards, but they’re not always finding their way out to lay members. We need organisation and confidence to win this one – and this is maybe where we can use the traditions of the T&G section of the union. Victories like Grangemouth and Shell are a brilliant illustration of what unions can do when we get it right.

There’s an urgent need for us to build this fight. There’s a fair bit of misinformation flying around – including that NHS unions have only signed up for a one year deal, and we can get more next year. There are challenges there. It’s a three year deal, with a re-opener clause that’s about as weak as it could be. The re-opener clause allows us to ask the Pay Review Body to ask the Secretary of State to review our pay if he feels like it. Given that he’s just imposed three years of pay cuts, he isn’t necessarily going to say ‘Yes, no problem lads’.

Dave Fleming, joint Head of Health, made a good point in the meeting. There could be real legal problems for unions that have accepted the deal in taking industrial action in Years 2 and 3. Action against the PRB for not recommending more money, for example, would almost certainly fall on the wrong side of the law – because the PRB isn’t the employer of NHS workers. I’ve personally got no problem at all with unions breaking the law when we have to, but that’s going to be a hard fight to win across the leaderships of all the NHS unions. No – if we’re serious about a fightback, now is absolutely the right time to do it.

I took a call this evening from one of our reps in East London. It was a sharp reminder of why this fight matters. She’s not on a bad salary by NHS standards. But she’s a single Mum, with three children. She lives in a housing association property – and she got a letter today telling her that her rent has been reviewed and the new ‘fair’ rent will be a third higher. Her food and fuel bills are going through the roof. She was planning to support her grown up daughter in doing an access course and going on to do a nursing degree. With three years of pay cuts lined up, that looks less and less realistic. She needs a fair pay increase. We all do.