Pay issues dominate at Unison Health conference

Neil Cafferky

Health workers gathered in Liverpool for Unison Health conference on 13-14 April, coming at a time when the NHS has become a key election battleground. It followed on from the poor NHS pay deal negotiated by the union’s leadership.

The fallout from the industrial action – called off in January – impacted on the conference as the most controversial debates were around withdrawing from the Pay Review Body (PRB).

Withdrawal from the PRB was moved by Northern Ireland delegates, fresh from successful strike action with Nipsa and other public sector unions on 13 March that brought Northern Ireland to a standstill. They argued for the union to end its participation in this supposedly neutral body and negotiate directly with the government as a national union.

Supporting the motion, Socialist Party member Roger Davey reminded conference that members’ pay had fallen year on year under PRB. Any gain of the movement has been won through struggle and collective negotiation from a position of strength, not PRB or any other mechanism, he said.

Despite a lively debate and none of the speakers opposing withdrawal putting forward any positive points in favour of the PRB, the motion was lost by three to one. The argument that withdrawing from PRB was a leap into the unknown won over a majority of delegates.

There were positive developments at the conference. A motion backing a £10 an hour minimum wage moved by Socialist Party member and Mid Yorkshire branch delegate Dave Byrom was overwhelmingly passed.

Inevitably in the run up to a general election, there was a great deal of talking up the Labour Party by Unison leaders. This was met with little enthusiasm from the conference floor, although equally there was a burning desire to see the back of the Tories.

It was clear from many speeches that attacks on unsocial hours payments were uppermost in the minds of many delegates. In his general secretary address Dave Prentis pledged that any attack on unsocial hours would be met with strike action. Given the leadership’s past record activists will have to work hard to ensure that this time it is a fight to the finish.