By Mike Fenwick
Healthworkers from around the country gather in Brighton on 22-24 April for Unison’s Annual Health Conference. After another turbulent year in the NHS it seems likely that the mood will be angry, but the key question remains, how can that anger be turned into action.
It is now a year since Patricia Hewitt was greeted with boos and cheers after announcing it had been the NHS’s best year ever. However, last year’s conference decisions to organise national action to defend the NHS have come to little. All we’ve had is a lobby of parliament and a rather badly organised region-by-region day of action on 3 March.
The decision to hold a national demonstration has been put back once and again. It is now likely to take place in October. Unison has left the issue to the community based campaigns such as Keep Our NHS Public (KONP).
At the conference, KONP is organising a fringe meeting to develop regional networks of health activists. Both this meeting and motions calling for a more vigorous campaign should be supported.
As well as discussing Brown’s public sector pay freeze (see page one), the conference will also discuss the framework for future pay negotiations. The Executive proposes that all health workers should come under official pay review boards. At present nurses and some other clinical staff have their annual awards decided in this way — by boards made up of ex business leaders and academics, not generally known for their sympathy towards workers.
Instead of giving up more of our independence as a union we should be supporting motions which call for withdrawal from the pay review boards and a return to free collective bargaining. The final say on pay should depend how well we counterpose the independent activity of our members to the wishes of the bosses to drive wages down.
Workers’ Liberty activists will be using the conference as a chance to promote John McDonnell, the left wing challenger to Gordon Brown for Labour Party leader. Through the Affiliated Political Fund, thousands of ordinary Unison members should have a chance to vote against the Blair/Brown succession and against the policies of privatisation and cuts.
Finally attempts to divide the conference on the basis that the fight for pay and the fight against cuts are different issues should be rejected. A decent NHS has to be based on a well paid and motivated workforce. The two go hand in hand.
That Unison has failed to take a lead on campaign for the NHS and squandered opportunities to defend the Local Government Pension Scheme points to a failure in its leadership. The right wing majority still takes refuge in the pretence that after Blair all might change.
The present round of National Executive Council elections allows ordinary members to change all that. Ballot papers are out now and Solidarity urges readers to support those standing to develop a fighting union.
Workers’ Liberty members Kate Ahrens and Ali Brown are standing in the health sector. We ask readers to support them and the left candidates in the other sectors of the union. You can download publicity and campaign materials from www.workersliberty.org to distribute around your workplace or local hospital.