Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/484/2342
UNISON health conference
Delegates demand action
UNISON HEALTH conference began with an air of business as usual as delegates streamed into the Brighton conference centre on a sunny Sunday morning. But this really was the calm before the storm. It wasn't long before health workers' anger at battling under an avalanche of privatisation, job cuts, closures and an insulting pay award came crashing to the surface.
Guest speaker Hilary Benn, told delegates that the health service really had got better under New Labour. He said waiting lists were down and there had been record investment. This really was too much for health workers to stomach and he was jeered and booed.
Delegates later left the conference centre asking: "What planet is he living on?" "He wants to come and work on my ward, which doesn't have enough staff or supplies and isn't cleaned regularly."
Andy Burnham, the health minister responsible for delivering 'reform', got a similar response when he addressed the last day of conference. One delegate told him: "Your job is a euphemism for privatisation. Yes there has been record spending on the NHS but it's all gone to the drug companies and paying for PFI." Some delegates held placards saying: "Put money into salaries".
The next explosion was over funding the Labour Party. The ability of the right-wing Blairite UNISON leaders to keep a lid on this issue is well and truly coming to an end.
A motion was moved referring to the May 2006 election period when UNISON's funding to New Labour was temporarily halted. It called for "a similar cessation of resources... while the Labour government continue to privatise NHS resources and to force NHS trusts to make cuts."
It was too close to tell from a show of hands if this was passed or not so some delegates demanded a card vote. The chair refused, saying the motion was clearly defeated. Feeling that union democracy had been trampled on and angry at giving financial support to a party butchering the NHS, groups of delegates walked out in disgust. The conference chair had to then count those left inside to ensure the conference was still quorate.
One delegate commented: "UNISON giving money to New Labour, is akin to members buying a gun, loading it and shooting themselves in the head".
The biggest issue for health workers was pay and opposition to the measly pay award of a staged 2.5%. Delegates voted overwhelmingly to reject the award and voted for industrial action, including strike action and to link up with other public-sector workers on this issue.
Gary Freeman, South Derbyshire health branch and Socialist Party member, warned that the leadership had supported resolutions calling for action before and nothing had happened. Members were sceptical about the service group executive - they had supported clauses calling for industrial and strike action before and it had not been implemented or was left too late for effective action to be organised, as with NHS Logistics.
Gary also said that the anniversary day of the setting up of the NHS, 5 July, could not go unmarked and that protests had to be organised on that day as a step to a national demonstration.
A date for a national demonstration to defend the NHS has finally been agreed for 13 October. Adrian O'Malley, Pinderfields Hospital branch secretary, said the material for the demonstration had to be out next week so that members could start building for it.
Health workers clearly want action and the leaders of UNISON and its health section are not going to be able to hold back industrial action and national protests to defend health workers and the NHS much longer.
In The Socialist 26 April 2007:
Socialist Party election analysis
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news