Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/18805
Defending jobs, pay and services at Whipps Cross hospital
In April, the Unison branch secretary and stewards employed by Initial at Whipps Cross hospital in Waltham Forest, north east London, resigned from Unison. They have subsequently joined Unite. An article by Unison rep Sam Strudwick was carried in the SWP's paper Socialist Worker, attacking this move, and Sam has also written to members of Unison at the hospital calling this move damaging and misguided.
We carry here the reply from the stewards.
Fighting to defend jobs, pay and services at Whipps Cross
A reply to Sam Strudwick
Just before Easter we resigned from Unison and wrote to members to explain our decision. We are now members of Unite.
The acting branch chair Sam Strudwick and victimised branch chair Charlotte Monro have written to Unison members. Sam describes our actions as damaging, splitting and demoralising the workforce. However, we have taken these measures because we believe they give workers at Whipps the best chance of building a united struggle that can successfully defeat the huge cuts we are facing.
We face £77 billion of cuts in Barts Trust. The down-banding and cuts that we campaigned against in the autumn is just the first phase. There will be massive attacks, including privatisations, that will threaten jobs, pay and services at Whipps Cross.
To fight these, we need to be able to organise action as a union, including strike action. Community campaigns are important, but it is the workforce that has the power to act decisively, if it is organised in an effective and combative union branch.
We have concluded that it is not possible at this point in time to properly defend pay, jobs and services at Whipps Cross, and not possible to defend our local union leaders, if we remain in Unison.
Now the true intentions of the Unison health region could be revealed. The regional officer has taken over as a temporary branch secretary, but alarmingly, the finances and membership records of the branch have been locked to the branch committee and are in the hands of the region. We fear a move to prevent the branch continuing as a campaigning unit.
Demonstration against NHS cuts at Whipps Cross hospital, East London 21 September 2013, photo Paul Mattsson (Click to enlarge)
This is precisely the sort of action we anticipated our branch would face as a result of our campaigning. Three years ago the regional leadership signed a 'partnership statement' with management behind the backs of the branch on porters' pay and job evaluation negating a gain won through strike action. In 2012 management threatened to discipline Len Hockey [the hospital Unison branch secretary] on trumped up disciplinary charges. The next day the Unison region wrote to Len attacking him, reinforcing management's disciplinary threat and copying in his members. This attack was only defeated by a determined fight. Len has been threatened with investigation by the union on more than one occasion.
Unison has a record of witch-hunting socialists in the union. The Defend the Four campaign recently scored a magnificent victory against a vicious five year witch-hunt of three branch secretaries and a branch chair on shocking invented charges of racism, which included taking their branches into regional supervision. Unable or unwilling to fight, the leadership has turned on those who will. It is well known amongst activists that the regional leadership wants to drive out socialists.
We do not want to see our workplace leaders sacrificed one by one. We do not want to see our workforce undermined and prevented from effectively organising.
Sam acknowledges that the refusal of the regional leadership to back our recent campaign was a bitter blow. She says she has, in her time, seen victories and losses. But this is not just a battle we happen to have lost. If we had fought a good fight and lost that would be one thing. Our regional leadership in fact orchestrated a defeat from the start. Our letter to Unison members details their actions. They refused support for our campaign and tried to prevent support coming from any other section of the union. Instead of helping us to overcome the very real problem presented by having three different union branches in the one Trust, they leant on the right-wing leaders in the other two branches against us.
It is disingenuous to say that "Unison was the only union at Whipps to hold [an indicative] ballot; the truth is no union leadership supported or proposed strike action over down-banding at Whipps", implying that Unison is no different to any other.
Demonstration against NHS cuts at Whipps Cross hospital, East London 21 September 2013, photo Paul Mattsson
It was not with the blessing of the Unison region that an indicative ballot was held. Unison held an indicative ballot at Whipps because of the leadership of the branch, in particular Len, fighting for it and organising it. Had Len been a rep of a different union, he would have organised and fought for it also. The question then is what is the attitude of the region to that campaign for action? We believe that in joining Unite, we are joining a union more likely to grant action once it has been fought for.
Sam argues that our actions will lead to demoralisation. But demoralisation of members was already both a danger and a reality due to the actions of the region. People joined the union because we were putting up a fight and now don't understand why no industrial action has been taken. People were leaving, or stepping down as reps. It makes it harder to build action for the next round of attacks, and lowers confidence in the pay campaign. Now with the region stepping in, activity of this sort will be even more difficult.
Events don't stand still. When members are let down again and again they cannot be expected to just hang around forever when other unions offer more of a fight. Moves elsewhere, particularly if they lead to action, can then in turn add to the pressure on the original union. Witness how cleaners in the University of London decided to join the IWGB when they were frustrated as members of Unison. They have then conducted bold action, which has undoubtedly been a factor in Unison sanctioning strike action by cleaners at SOAS.
We agree with Charlotte when she says our Branch has a proud history of fighting for its members, the importance of the contracted-out workers and the Trust workers standing together, and that we are inspiring others. Len, as an employee of Initial, led from the front the campaign to defend jobs and pay in the Trust. Len argued and organised for the best possible united action by all the unions in the hospital, led by Unison with its record and its clear strategy. Len argued for strike action as the best way to defend Charlotte from victimisation.
This will not stop. We are not prepared to allow a moribund right wing regional leadership in Unison to purposefully undo our ability to organise. We would refer Sam to her own call for us all to "to continue to build together for a properly-funded, well-staffed, decently-paid workforce at Whipps". In our view we are now better placed to be able to do this. We offer a united front between the members of all the unions at the hospital, putting pressure on our respective leaderships. Our actions will defend our members in the hospital and hold open the prospect of pressurising Unison into action as well.
Fighting to reclaim Unison
Sam argues that because of the opportunities presented by the decision at Unison health conference for strike action over pay, and because of Unison's overwhelming size, especially in health, we should stay in it in order to build it into a fighting organisation.
We support a strategy to fight for a democratic and combative Unison, putting forward a fighting programme and candidates at all levels. We support the aim of building a left in the union based on those members and branches that want a fight.
The NHS faces historic attacks which, without an almighty fight, could see the end of the NHS as we know it. Following years of cuts, closures and privatisation by the previous Labour government, the Tories now intend to dismantle and sell off the NHS, as well as wield massive austerity cuts.
The decision at Unison health conference does indeed represent a great opportunity. But we have to have our eyes open: this has happened because Prentis and the rest feel under such pressure that they cannot be seen to hold back struggle forever. That pressure will have to be maintained at every level if the action is to go ahead successfully.
Approximately 1.3 million people are organised in Unison and our resignation does not for one minute mean we turn our backs on those workers, who are "lions led by donkeys". If it were just down to the determination and willingness to fight of Unison members in the NHS there is no doubt we would already have a mighty movement capable of defending the NHS from the Tories, from cuts and privatisation. Workers have shown time and again, from Mid-Yorkshire, to Doncaster Care UK, to Whipps Cross, that with a decent leadership they are willing to fight.
Not every region is the same. Some regions of Unison are much more willing to fight and have facilitated strike action, such as in Mid-Yorkshire and in the South West.
We support our colleagues in Unison across London and nationally in fighting to reclaim the union for the members.
However, we have to balance that overall strategy with the immediate need for our local workforce to be able to organise and defend ourselves.