Solidarity talked to Kate Ahrens, a Unison United Left member who was elected last summer to the Health Group women's seat on the Union's National Executive and Healthcare Service Group Executive
Will the anger and frustration about Agenda for Change be expressed at the Unison Health conference?
KA: Only partially. The agenda contains some motions on the process of the Agenda for Change renegotiations and the second ballot, but not on the deal itself,which will be debated at the special conference in October.
Some of the discontent is about the tiny amount of information they are getting about the progress being made in the Early Implementer sites and the renegotiations at a national level. A great deal is over what members do know - unhappiness with national profiles, anger at the level of pay for Band 1, discontent over the unsocial hours payment system, and what appears to be clinical bias in the factors of the job evaluation scheme.
Has the union had any success at re-negotiating the problem areas of AfC?
KA: I don't know! The national union didn't attempt to re-negotiate anything until this month. The tactic of waiting to get some evidence out of the experiences of the Early Implementer sites has been undermined by the painfully slow progress that the EI sites have made. All the renegotiating work has been squeezed into the last couple of months before we have to make our final decision.
The Service Group Executive - and Unison's health membership - have been unable to judge whether any changes were possible, or how far we might be able to push things. My fear is that there will be some minor cosmetic changes to the scheme, but nothing substantial.
Last year, Unison members voted in favour of the initial implementation of Agenda for Change. What has changed since then?
KA: Last year, Unison's Health Service Group Executive voted overwhelmingly against simply endorsing the scheme as it stood.
The special conference last year was equally clear that without significant changes, Agenda for Change was not acceptable. The union voted to go ahead with Early Implementation to test out the scheme in a limited way. So far, very little has changed in the scheme. Unless something substantial happens in the next couple of months, I can't see how the union can recommend the scheme to our members.
There's a moderate sized 'opposition' now on the Health Service Group Executive; you've been able to win certain changes to the process for the second ballot. But can you have any hope of winning a position of opposition to the scheme this year? Won't the leadership advocate it as 'the only show in town', and better than the existing, out-dated pay system?
KA: It's difficult to see how they could do that with any credibility. It's more likely that there will be an attempt to argue that there have been some changes made, but not to all the areas that we identified as being problems. I have higher hopes that the special conference will reject the package if it remains unacceptable, but that relies on the members finding out all the facts about what Agenda for Change has meant in the EI sites.
Could there be a positive programme of demands for activists to unite around in opposition to the current AfC deal? Is Agenda for Change a take-it-or-leave-it deal, or could there be negotiated improvements to it, and then further consultation?
KA: I think identifying a set of positive demands for the way in which we want the deal changed would be extremely useful. The government have invested just as many years in negotiating this deal as the unions have, and they are not going to simply walk away from it. In the event of a 'no' vote, there would inevitably be further rounds of negotiations. And in what looks like the year before a general election, nobody in the government wants a prolonged or hostile dispute over NHS pay.
What will happen if the membership vote 'no' in October?
KA: It is very clear that it's not possible to implement Agenda for Change for some, and not others. So if we vote 'no', then Agenda for Change will not be implemented. I think what's very likely to happen is some extremely speedily convened negotiations which would have to involve all the health unions.
At that point, I think it's crucial that members tell the national union what bits of Agenda for Change we want to alter - going into these negotiations with a clear set of demands from the membership will be vital to ensuring that we can come out of it with a deal worth accepting.
There don't seem to be many motions on the Unison Health Conference agenda this year - is that because branches are mostly preoccupied with Agenda for Change, and are waiting for the special conference?
KA: I think so, yes. It's inevitably hard to concentrate on other issues when the biggest change to the pay and conditions of the entire health service staff in the history of the NHS is hovering just over the horizon. But to some extent, it's also true that many of the other hot issues of the day - privatisation, staff shortages, bullying management culture - have been around for such a long time, and we've talked about them so often before, that the question now isn't what to say about them at conference, but why we're failing to stop any of them. Almost all of the motions on this year's agenda are supported by the executive.
Obviously it's good that we've got consensus over our position against PFI, for example, but we don't seem to be taking action that changes the situation.
Why hasn't the left been able to field more candidates for the current round of Executive elections? Does the low number of contested seats suggest that the membership as a whole are satisfied with the current leadership?
KA: I think it's far more likely that most branches simply never discussed the possibility of nominating anyone. Not only are there a low number of contested seats, there are also a frighteningly high number of seats that don't have a candidate at all.
Interest in these elections has always been terribly poor, in my view. The Service Group Executives are the highest lay committees within the Service Groups. They are where, as members, we can expect to get oversight of the pay and conditions and industrial issues of the union. They are really important committees and could wield a lot of power and influence. But their status is weakened by the lack of interest in standing as candidates or even in voting.
Partly this is due to the poor communication between elected members of the committee and the members of the union.
Since I've been elected onto the National Executive, I've made it a point to send reports of all the SGE and NEC meetings out to every branch that I have e-mail contact for - I get no support from the union to send out reports. I've been staggered by the number of branches who tell me that mine are the first reports they've ever seen of what goes on at the Service Group Executive or the National Executive Committee.
We're there to represent the members, and yet the members don't even know who we are or what we're doing. It's not surprising, then, that they don't see the value in trying to hold us to account. It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, though - until more people stand, and fight for a more open accounting of what goes on, members won't see the benefits in voting. But until more people vote, it's hard to persuade people that they should stand and make a big deal out of trying to win these elections.