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From The Socialist newspaper, 27 July 2006

UNISON stewards/activists meeting

NHS workers must organise for action

EACH DAY the steady dismantling of the health service continues, up to now unchallenged by the national leaders of the health unions and the TUC. Ward closures, staff redundancies, preparations to close tens of Primary Care Trusts, are taking place, all in the name of balancing the books and making financial savings that aren't supposed to 'hurt' patient care.

Lois Austin

'Turnaround teams' - fine-suited men and women from business, ship-shaping the health service for private health care vultures ready to swoop in and buy up NHS services - are now present in most hospital trusts. Blair employed them to carry out more market reform and, in the words of one FTSE 100 boss at Downing Street to give his advice, "sack those on trust boards opposed to change".

All this is preparing our health service for full-scale privatisation. The government let it slip in that now infamous advertisement in an EU newspaper. Not only were they putting the NHS commissioning service, worth 64 billion, up for sale, but they also announced that NHS clinical services were going on the market.

The Department of Health were forced to withdraw this part of the advert saying it was a mistake, but most health experts believe that it's only a matter of time before clinical services are tendered out.

In response to these savage attacks, protests have taken place around the country. On 15 July, health workers and community campaigners joined forces in a cross-regional demonstration in Birmingham. The scenic Forest of Dean has seen thousands out protesting against the proposed closure of six primary care trusts in Gloucestershire, making everyone in that county dependent on one super-hospital.

On 18 July, 200 Forest of Dean campaigners besieged parliament demanding their local hospitals remain open. On the same day student physiotherapists lobbied the same MPs, demanding jobs when they graduate. Like student nurses, there are no jobs for them when they qualify.

The health unions' leadership, representing hundreds of thousands, at last seem to be waking up to the idea that something has to be done. But unfortunately, they are so tied into support for Labour that it is a barrier to action.

However, even the TUC were compelled to act over the threat to privatise the NHS commissioning service and have called a lobby of MPs for the autumn. Health activists and campaigners must build this lobby and make it the biggest show of anger to date over the attacks on the NHS.

But the pressure from below is having some effect. It seems UNISON is planning a joint day of action on a weekday at all NHS hospitals and units in late September and regional demonstrations in November/December, according to a report on the Health Activists website.

Trade unionists need to campaign in the unions to get these plans off the drawing board and turned into united, well built for action. There is also a possible plan for a national demonstration in February 2007; we need to campaign to make sure this takes place and if possible is brought forward.


NEXT SATURDAY (29 July) in Birmingham, rank and file trade unionists will meet to plan a strategy to defeat privatisation and defend health workers' jobs. This meeting, initiated by Socialist Party members in UNISON, is a follow-up to a stormy fringe meeting of 120 delegates at the recent UNISON conference, which recognised the need for urgent action to save the NHS.

The strategy they adopt must be a dual one of campaigning in the unions, to get them to use their authority to organise mass resistance to the cuts and privatisation of the NHS and to build for the action they are planning, even though plans are vague at the moment. It's not too late for UNISON, the biggest health union, to coordinate industrial action of those union branches such as at Whipps Cross who have been left to fight alone, backed up by national demonstrations to defend their members.

The other part of the strategy must be preparedness to initiate protest actions, like those that have already been organised by union branches and health campaigns, if the union leaders won't do it. This even means calling local, regional and if necessary national protests and demonstrations.

What choice do we have? To stand by and do nothing while the NHS is flogged off and thousands of workers lose their jobs is not an option. It is precisely this type of rank and file activity that will stoke up pressure on the trade union leaders to act.

One possibility is to organise a feeder march to the lobby of MPs in the autumn. A protest like this will much more vividly show the anger over what this government are doing to the health service than just a lobby of MPs.

The Birmingham meeting also needs to plan a thorough campaign throughout NHS workplaces explaining to health workers the scale of - and what lies behind - the current round of cutbacks. Many health workers report management intimidation and have been told they can't go to meetings or take part in demonstrations. A struggle has to be waged to raise these workers' confidence to take industrial action in defence of their jobs, wages and conditions.

In an indicative ballot, 80% of NHS Logistics workers voted yes to strike action to stop privatisation of their service. They are now balloting for an actual strike. Workers at Whipps Cross hospital are striking as we go to print.

So, struggles are taking place. They will give confidence to other NHS workers that they too can do the same. Industrial action like this, particularly if any group of workers are successful, will increase understanding on the need for trade union organisation and strengthen the unions in the NHS. Ultimately it will be industrial action by health care workers, backed up by mass protests, which will protect jobs and stop cuts and ensure the NHS' future in the medium and long term.

We need to ensure that union activists link with community campaigns around the country. Hundreds of local people out protesting to defend their local hospital will encourage health workers to get involved and vice versa.

UNISON stewards/activists meeting

Saturday 29 July 1pm - 5pm

Carrs Lane Church Centre, central Birmingham (near Moor Street station)

Lively picket at Whipps Cross hospital

SINGING, DANCING and drumming accompanied the liveliest picket line you are ever likely to visit. Porters and domestics at Whipps Cross hospital in east London went on strike on 21 July to force private company Initial Rentokil to honour an agreement made three years ago.

197 out of 240 members signed up for picket line duty at Whipps Cross hospital - showing tremendous solidarity and determination to fight. Speakers at the lunchtime rally urged the national UNISON leadership to lead a fight-back against low pay, cuts and privatisation, beginning with organising a national demonstration.

The next strike days are on 1-2 August.

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In The Socialist 27 July 2006:

Invasion of Lebanon

Bush gives green light to the Israeli onslaught

Eyewitness account from socialist in Lebanon

Thousands march against Israel's attacks on Lebanon

'The politicians and generals are dragging us into the quagmire'

When Israel occupied Lebanon (1982-2000)

No politics please, we're anti-war

Socialist Party NHS campaign

Resistance grows to NHS cuts and closures

NHS workers must organise for action

Physios protest at lack of jobs

Romsey says: "Save Our Birthing Centre"

Strike ballot at NHS Logistics

Socialist Party youth and students

Young people in revolt

Socialist Party campaigns

Class - a matter of life and death

Schools victory scored in Bury

Hope and desperation

John McDonnell's leadership bid

Militant pioneer dies

Bus drivers vote to strike

Socialist Party national trade union meeting


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