Liverpool picket line, photo Liverpool SP
Liverpool picket line, photo Liverpool SP

Socialist Party members in Unison

The main debate at Unison’s National Health Care Service Group conference was on pay, with an indicative ballot of members having started just days before. Socialist Party members were prominent among those delegates demanding that the conference debate be turned into a real launch of the fighting campaign that’s needed.

The Socialist Party organised the only fringe meeting before the pay debate. Adrian O’Malley, currently seeking re-election to the health service group executive (SGE), described how NHS pay has fallen so much over the last 14 years of Tory rule that the lowest-paid NHS workers are only just above the national minimum wage.

The Unison leadership will point to the 34% turnout in the national ballot last year that meant there couldn’t be national action on pay. That was the highest vote the union has ever achieved, but fell foul of the undemocratic Tory anti-union laws. Adrian asked the question: with the annual pay review date of 1 April, why are we waiting till now to really launch the pay campaign?

In the pay debate itself, Socialist Party member Dave Byrom said that of course delegates would support the emergency motion from the SGE, the only pay motion on the agenda, but that the conference should go further. The SGE motion calls for a real-terms pay rise, the right band for the job and a shorter working week, and calls for direct pay talks rather than the allegedly ‘independent’ pay review body. Dave argued that there should be a rallying point for a fighting campaign launched urgently with other health unions. We cannot repeat the mistake of allowing the Tories to impose a below-inflation rise before a campaign gets off the ground.

Dave pointed to the increasing number of local disputes by Unison members in health, as well as national action by other health unions, including nurses in the RCN and doctors in the BMA, that show the potential. “It shows we can win if there’s a real campaign.” Socialist Party member Brian Loader called for Unison to campaign for its policy of £15 an hour as a minimum NHS wage.

Delegates were well aware that Labour’s shadow health minister, Blairite Wes Streeting, had given his apologies to conference because of a “clash of dates”. But he had been in the press criticising “middle-class lefties” for opposing his intention to increase private sector involvement in the NHS.

Yet Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said to conference that while we won’t agree on everything with a Labour government, we will be “around the table” with them.

In contrast, Socialist Party member Paul Tovey asked: what is Labour’s position on NHS pay? “We’ve heard nothing – they expect us to go away, but we won’t!” In chairing the Socialist Party fringe meeting, Sally Griffiths made the point that a fight on pay is not only vital to win the rise members need, but will also send a signal to Labour leader Keir Starmer.