I’ve been to two frustrating meetings this week.
On Monday night, members of Unite’s Health Sector National Committee met three MPs with a claimed interest in the NHS. They included Kevin Barron, Chair of the House of Commons Health Select Committee.
The lay members present expressed real anger about pay and privatisation. A porter talked about how the lowest paid health workers are being squeezed hardest by the credit crunch. A health visitor talked about community nurses with case loads of 1000 families, and the escalating risks of another ‘Baby P’. A mental health nurse raised her concerns about the state of mental health services – the government claimed services were a priority, but when money was available, it was in little short-term ‘pots’ that were taken out of existing services. A craft worker talked about the enormous waste of money associated with ‘contestability’, and a health care scientist reported that in his hospital the private sector charges three times the going rate to change a bulb in an X-Ray machine. I talked about the rock bottom morale of health workers and the deep damage being caused to the NHS by privatisation.
I was impressed with our representatives. We were well-informed, articulate, and spoke from a starting point of strong commitment to a publicly owned and publicly accountable NHS.
It’s a shame that the MPs present didn’t seem to share our agenda.
Barron acknowledged that the Government had destroyed a lot of good will by its handling of public sector pay – but said that MPs weren’t in a position to shape the outcome.
He continued with a facile characterisation of privatisation being about stopping consultants playing golf when they should be doing NHS work, and pretended the agenda was primarily around ‘destroying the vested interests of doctors’. The truth perhaps came out with one of Barrons’s final comments: “It’s not going to be an easy ride for anybody, especially yourselves”. There was little evidence here of any willingness to understand what privatisation is actually doing to the NHS. And respecting and listening to health workers I suspect isn’t going to happen any century soon.
Tuesday saw a special meeting of the Union’s Health Sector National Committee to discuss where we are with pay.
We’ve run a pretty good campaign on pay. Our members initially voted by 95% to reject the three year deal, and this autumn voted in favour both of strike action and industrial action short of strike action. We’ve run days of action, in July and at the start of this month.
This meeting was probably crunch time in terms of taking the fight forward. The National Officer and many lay representatives talked about the problems – the unevenness of the day of action, the lack of confidence amongst sections of the membership, the impact of the recession on confidence and organisation and so on. The Committee voted against taking any action now to progress strike action. We’ll be meeting again in January – but it looks less and less likely that were going to see a serious fight over pay in this year’s pay round.
So what went wrong? There is certainly unevenness in the levels of confidence and organisation on the ground. I argued in the meeting that we couldn’t afford to be paralysed by that, and that leadership was about building on what we’d got- but most representatives were obviously unconvinced of this. An absolutely key job for activists is rebuilding organisation, workplace by workplace and section by section.
The prospects for united action across the public sector have got less and less over recent months. Action alongside the PCS and NUT would have been a different prospect to fighting on our own. Action across local government and Health could have had real power. Action across all NHS unions would obviously have been brilliant – but was ruled out by the divide and rule tactics from the leaderships of Unison and the RCN back in April. There are lessons to be learned here for all public sector unions. We’re stronger fighting together.
The recession has sapped confidence, certainly – but when you read about Madonna’s divorce settlement with poor deprived Guy, you realise that the grotesque inequalities of our society are alive and well. A large part of this is about politics. Why should public sector workers pay for an economic crisis that is not remotely of our making?
I also wonder about the commitment from the very top of Unite. It was a disheartening experience on Tuesday night to have a thoroughly unsympathetic MP tell us, with a slight smirk, that one of our Joint General Secretaries thought the pay deal didn’t look too bad. From previous remarks I’ve heard Derek Simpson make on NHS pay, an informed guess is that this came from him. I’ve always believed that an over-friendly relationship with New Labour is bad news for public sector workers.
The bottom line for trade unionists is that we get what we fight for. Meetings with MPs can make you cross, but they don’t deliver decent pay unless the meetings are backed up with industrial muscle. It’s looking likely now that the fight isn’t going to happen this financial year. That means real pain for our members who are struggling with increased fuel bills, food bills, council tax, public transport and the like. We need to do far better than this next time.