By a conference delegate
Agenda for Change (AFC), the proposed new National Health Service pay system, dominated Unison's health conference, in Glasgow, 26-28 April, although the key decisions were scheduled for a special conference later in the year.
Health workers are slowly discovering the scale of the threat represented by AFC, as news from the 12 Early Implementer (EI) sites leaks out. The details are institutionalised low pay, a longer working week for many, and greater management control over pay progression.
Unison will be holding a ballot on whether to roll-out the AFC package in October, and the conference rejected an attempt to bring forward the ballot date to a point where members would have been voting without a full picture of the scheme. Amicus is still scheduled to ballot in September, and the danger is that a yes vote in Amicus, where full-time officials have a greater control, will be used to press for a yes vote in Unison. Amicus activists should use the Unison health conference decision to argue for their ballot to be delayed and to run in tandem us.
At a panel discussion, activists at five of the EI sites reported problems with the scheme. Several confirmed that there were likely to be many staff requiring pay protection, and that the unsocial hours scheme was failing to reward affected staff - a significant proportion of the NHS workforce.
Ambulance workers from North East Ambulance Unison, told how management have used the scheme's stated intention of reducing the working week to increase the amount of time ambulance crews spend on duty! It's likely that there will be a ballot for industrial action there, and also in two other of the EI sites. Hardly the ringing endorsement Unison officials hoped for.
The leadership of the union face a problem. They want to sell the deal to the membership, but the chances of Unison members approving the scheme are shrinking. The lay leadership on the Health Service Group Executive know they may take the blame and risk not being re-elected if they're seen to promote a deal that worsens members' pay and conditions, so the rhetoric at this year's conference was very different from last year. Dave Prentis, Unison General Secretary, barely mentioned AFC this year.
Government Health Minister John Reid told delegates that change and modernisation were inevitable, in other words we shouldn't try to stop the government plans.
Malcolm Chisholm, the Scottish Minister of Health, was scheduled to speak, but he pulled out. It would have been interesting to compare his speech to that of Reid, now that the Labour Party in Scotland is coming under pressure from the SSP.
About 50 delegates attended a fringe meeting on tackling low pay in the health service, organised by grassroots activists and the Healthworker newspaper. A striking nursery nurse and ex-Unison activist turned SSP Member of the Scottish Parliament, Carolyn Leckie, spoke. There was agreement that we needed a forum for rank and file discussion of AFC before the special conference in October, and plans for an activist conference over the summer were made.
There is a serious problem at the heart of Unison's strategy for tackling low pay in the NHS. Instead of focussing on collective bargaining, backed up by the strength of the union, the union favours 'career progression' - that low-paid Healthcare Assistants should become nurses in order to get a living wage. That's fine for the individual concerned, but what about the remaining HCAs. Don't they get a living wage? Unison is following a 'partnership" agenda, locking a large section of the membership into a life of low pay. Unfortunately there was little organised resistance at conference.
Pensions were also a major issue. The Government's intention to make all NHS workers work an extra five years came in for fierce criticism. Even the leadership of the union proposed a campaign, including industrial action, against any attempt to raise the retirement age.
What is needed now is a fight, across all the public sector unions, like that of the French unions against attacks on the pension rights of public sector workers. The first step could be a big turn-out for the TUC's pensions demonstration on 19 June. Unfortunately the TUC has backed away from making the public sector retirement age the central focus.
One rare point of controversy was over the performance of the union's Parliamentary Group - those MPs who identify with Unison, either because they're ex-members or ex-employees, or because the union funds their Constituency Labour Party. The majority of the Unison group did not vote against Foundation Hospitals, which gave Blair enough votes to win.
This dissatisfaction must be addressed before the union ballots on the continuation of the political funds sometime over the next year. Unison needs its political funds, but activists won't campaign for them unless they see them being used to fight for union policy.
Health branches often don't bother attending the union's annual delegate conference - due in Bournemouth, on 22-25 June - but this provides the only opportunity for health branch activists to meet and discuss Agenda for Change before the Executive announces its recommendation for the special conference. Health activists must use the Annual Conference to firm up opposition to the proposals.