29.08.12 Mel Simpson
Since its launch last week, the South West NHS Fightback campaign has received a warm response.
Thousands of leaflets have been handed out calling for the 60,000 hospital workers across the region to reject the attempt by the Pay Terms and Conditions Consortium (PTC) to slash wages and introduce a performance based pay system, increase working hours, reduce unsocial–hour’s payment, remove sickness absence enhancements and cut annual leave. The South West NHS Fightback Website has received nearly 500 hits.
During the leafleting campaign workers have been warned that the PTC’s plans are a test case for the 1.5 million NHS workers across the country and are a prelude to further privatisation.
This would not be possible without the collaboration of the trade unions, which pushed the Agenda for Change in 2004, claiming it would protect wages and conditions. The new proposals are the predictable outcome of the Agenda for Change agreements and come on top of a two year pay freeze, significant increases in pension contributions and an increase in the retirement age.
Many NHS staff expressed their concern about the government’s massive cuts and the implications of the Health and Social Care Bill. Some were unaware that the bill introduces a competitive market-based system, in which health care will be rationed. Each hospital or Trust will be able to set up joint ventures with the private sector. The bill abolishes the duty to provide a comprehensive health service and to ensure equality of access. Instead, a consortia of General Practitioners will arrange for such services as they deem necessary, based on their budget.
GP consortia can enter into arrangements with private providers and will be able to charge patients. Twenty-three for profit companies already run 227 GP practices.
Local authorities can also be required to take over NHS functions, at a time when their budgets are being slashed to the bone. Patients will soon find themselves entitled only to a basic menu of treatments, as under the US system of managed care, and ultimately will have to depend on an insurance-based system. These measures will cost tens of thousands their health, even their lives.
A number of comments by NHS workers have been posted on the website in which they talk about privatisation, working conditions and the role of the trade unions.
Typical was one who said about the NHS how, “It’s declined, it’s a business more than a national health service, more and more outside businesses coming in, private companies, which are under cutting drastically which actually reduces the service.”
A cleaner approached us saying that she had worked for the NHS for six years. When she started she had had no training and had to watch other cleaners on how to clean inside the hospital. She states that staffs morale is low and they are all afraid of losing their jobs. They are not allowed to talk about the conditions they work in. Such concerns are the fault of the unions, whose collaboration with management repeatedly leads workers to defeat.
One worker explained how this had happened to him, “Union leaders and the employers first have back door discussion about what is to come. Then the union leaders come to us and try to convince us the employers’ positions. It happened several times in this hospital. The pay cartel thing is the latest one. They now do not ask about what we think before they go to meet the employer. They sometimes just put a leaflet on the table without discussing the issue. When we question them later on, they say we informed you by this or that leaflet. I am sick of these unions.”
At Southmead Hospital, Bristol, the reaction from NHS workers to our call for a break from the unions and the establishment of Action Committees was overwhelmingly positive. Cars queued outside the hospital, winding down their windows taking leaflets, asking for several copies to take to their work colleagues or for the night shift and without exception agreed with our criticism of the trade unions.
Our campaign for a break with the unions and the formation of Action Committees came as bit of shock to many, but not a disagreeable one. However, not a single person voiced any opposition, disagreement or even a note of caution.
The only experience of hostility has come from local trade union reps, who make desperate attempts to justify their campaign of appealing to the Trust directors and the Liberal Democrats to oppose the very cuts that they have called for and fully intend on carrying out.
One local Unite rep challenged us on our statement. Without batting an eyelid she scathingly informed us that workers in her hospital “know nothing about what is happening!”
On being asked whose fault that was and our outlining the bankruptcy of the unions’ campaign of begging letters and petitions, demonstrations and strikes on dinner breaks, she said, “We have to try everything.”
“We are doing something! We are talking to [Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy prime Minister] Nick Clegg,” she added.
Socialist Equality Party members were also challenged by dismayed union reps from the Royal College of Nurses (RCN) and Unison, who proudly informed us that they were also having discussions with Clegg and another unnamed Liberal Democrat MP. The RCN rep also announced that the “RCN will surprise you in the next couple of days.”
Jeannett Martin, Regional Director, RCN South West Region, revealed the much anticipated “surprise” in letter to members:
“ I have written to the Chief Executive of each of the 20 trusts that are members of the Pay Cartel (10 August) and, on behalf of all the health unions in the South West, formally asked them to withdraw from this Cartel. This letter has been copied to the Chair and Non Executive Directors of the trust and your local chair of staff side, so that they can follow it up with their Chief Executives.”
The surprise then, is a latter has been written to the trusts’ management.
The hospital authorities are not too keen on the Fightback campaign. Those handing out leaflets are confronted by security guards and told to keep off NHS property. However, outside one hospital, three security guards informed us, “The fat cats up stairs, you know the ones who don’t have to worry about a 10 percent cut in their wages, have told us to inform you that you need to move off hospital property as some staff have complained. Staff haven’t complained, only the fat cats don’t like you being here. Give us some of those leaflets and we will put them in the staff room. Thanks for being here and fighting our corner.”