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Posted on 19 May 2011 at 15:47 GMT

Unison leaders failing to adopt the demands of health workers

A Unison nurse

Around 100 nursing stewards attended Unison's first nursing and midwifery professional seminar in York on 11-12 May. Unfortunately delegates' participation was restricted to questions to the main speakers and there was no room for any real debate.

Karen Jennings, one of Unison's newly appointed assistant general secretaries, was the first speaker and gave an overview of the threats to the NHS as a result of the government's proposals.

Although she was critical of Labour's record on the NHS she also repeated the old mantras of more nurses, shorter waiting lists and new hospitals built during Labour's last term in office.

According to Karen Jennings Labour remains the only show in town. We should also stop giving Clegg and the Lib Dems such a hard time as the Tories are the real enemy.

Whilst the Tories are our enemy it would be wrong to let the Lib Dems off the hook and ignore their role in the Con-Dem coalition. Yet it appears that some Unison leaders are looking to the Lib Dems as future partners for Labour.

This shows how they lack any idea of an alternative to the cuts. They also fear Labour being exposed as service and job cutters if they win a majority at the next general election.

The session on pensions highlighted the threat facing all public sector workers following the Hutton report. One delegate asked when Unison would be balloting for industrial action in defence of pensions following general secretary Dave Prentis' pledge.

Karen Jennings had earlier stated that Unison would be meeting with the cabinet to discuss the principals of negotiations for each sector and that consultation would then need to take place over a ballot, which is a 17 week process.

She also warned of needing to ensure a high turnout in any ballot. She did not consider the evidence of the huge demo on 26 March and the results of a recent Unison nursing survey.

There 72% said they would be in favour of taking industrial action in defence of their pensions. Also previous campaigns on pensions have seen a massive rise in recruitment of members to the union.

She also ruled out the idea of Unison taking action on 30 June.

The idea that there is no alternative to Labour was reinforced throughout the conference with one of the guest speakers commenting adversely on the RMT's Bob Crow and his "new workers' party".

This shows that Unison's leadership remains tied to the Labour Party despite the experience of the last government and is unwilling to lead a fightback against the Con-Dem coalition.

Workers cannot afford to wait five years for the election of another pro-big business Labour government and needs their own political voice now. The event was a welcome initiative and gave the opportunity for nurses and midwives to come together to share their experiences.

The most inspirational speaker was from the New South Wales Nurses Association. She gave an account of their campaign to improve patient/staff ratios with one nurse to four patients being the key demand.

This was a model of how to organise, with nurses taking control of the wards, closing beds apart from emergency use and engaging with the public for support.

They organised a rally of 6,000 nurses and won a ballot on industrial action.

Although not all of their demands were won they did get a backdated pay rise of 9.7% and a commitment to move towards their demands on staffing ratios.

If this sort of campaign can win in Australia there is no reason why Unison couldn't use the same methods of organisation to mobilise in defence of the NHS.

Hopefully this will be an annual event and delegates in future will be allowed to participate more fully, determine the agenda and develop a fighting programme for nurses and all NHS staff.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 2011-05-19 15:47:13 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.

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