Cash for bankers; cuts for workers

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.

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