The Socialist 13 December 2007 |
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Karen Reissmann sacked - workers' solidarity spreads
If you're £3million in the red while the management above you have £160m sitting in the bank, what do you do? Ask them for the money to fund vital services supporting patients? Not if you're called chief executive Sheila Foley. You sack the union rep, provoke a strike and the most widespread solidarity protests Manchester has seen in years.
Hugh Caffrey - Manchester
Socialist Party members first raised the need for a day of action to broaden the reinstatement campaign. This was taken up by the strikers and agreed by Unison's national bodies, which estimates thousands of workers took part on 5th December.
Public-sector unions in Manchester answered the call, with postal workers holding protests on every shift while civil servants rallied in their dozens at Spinningfields. Socialist Party trade unionists played an important part. From the Blood Service, a dozen workers joined the 40-strong protests at Manchester Royal Infirmary. ANDY FORD, Amicus rep, reports:
"The red Amicus flags from the blood bank flew alongside the green and purple Unison banners and placards showing the building unity and support... Despite the rain there was excellent support from passing patients and students from the nearby University. One old lady fiercely told me, 'Well done, someone's got to fight these people!' before putting £2 into the strike fund. This day of action is only a taste of what can be developed by NHS trade unionists working together."
At Manchester town hall, JIM CESSFORD, Unison's senior steward in Manchester Advice, organised a Unison campaigns stall which many workers visited to show their support. In Salford, STEVE NORTH, local government Unison rep, says:
"Roughly 20 trade union activists and members of the local community gathered outside Hope Hospital. We were visited by Wendy and Sarah, two of the striking nurses who told us that they were really pleased to see the growing level of support for their dispute in Greater Manchester and beyond.
"Leaflets were handed out to passers by - many of whom stopped to discuss with us about the dispute. Those we spoke to were already aware of what had happened to Karen because of local media coverage and offered kind words of support to Wendy and Sarah to take back to their branch.
"This is a dispute that continues to enjoy growing support amongst trade unionists and other members of the public. Those of us there pledged to continue to help in this fight against victimisation and for properly funded mental health care within an NHS available to all at the point of need."
Protests happened across Greater Manchester, at Royal Bolton Hospital, in Trafford, in Prestwich and among Rochdale council workers.
In SHEFFIELD, around 15 hospital workers protesting at the Northern General Hospital, including eight stores workers fighting their own battle, were visited by Manchester strikers and local Socialist Party members. While some protested outside, other NGH stewards were inside at a meeting about the Trust putting domestic services out to tender!
In LONDON, members of Unison's national executive committee visited UCLH. Health-workers protested elsewhere in London and around Britain including in Wakefield, Bristol, Leicester, Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, Gwent and York.
In MANCHESTER 200 gagged 'Silent Nightingales' rallied in the evening. A striker told the socialist:
"This lobby is really good. It's quite heartening to see people out across the country and nationally. You know you're not alone, seeing all these messages of support it really buoys us up. For the Trust bosses this is a wake-up call, but when they don't even know what's happening in their own Trust we'll see what happens.
"More important are the people who are the movers and shakers behind the scenes [councillors and MPs - HC]. These are the people who should be protecting the NHS, protecting the patients, and protecting services. Today will force them to take notice. It's not up to Foley and people like her, now it's up to the people we elect.
"As well as workers or service users we're also tax-payers. We are the electorate and shouldn't have to be here in the rain protesting, we should be back at work. This has been going on for too long and it's just not good enough."
Strike suspended - struggle continues
After five weeks of indefinite strike action, 120 Manchester mental health workers have returned to work and are preparing the next steps in the struggle against cuts and union-busting. Further industrial action and mass protests are planned for 2008, and Unison has launched a "national campaign".
Hugh Caffrey - Manchester
Karen's sacking was confirmed on 10th December by three bosses loyal to chief executive Foley. The strike continued until 14th December while workers debated the next steps, making in our opinion the correct decision to suspend the strike until early February. By that time the issues of cuts will have become clearer, putting workers in a better position to resume strike action.
Unity of the workforce has been maintained, new activists gained, and preparation for next year begun. Threatening to remain on picket lines forced Trust managers into conceding no victimisation of strikers for taking action, and no referral of Karen to the nursing standards body. Referral to this body was threatened against all strikers at the start of the walk-out. If upheld, referral would effectively ban that worker for life from their job. A review is promised of 'Changes in Mind', the cuts programme at the root of the dispute.
These concessions have been hammered out of a viciously anti-union management by determined strike action. The new stewards who stepped forward during the strike, together with existing activists and the wider workforce will need to be on guard against any attempts by management to row back on them. Foley & Co still intend to hammer through £3m of cuts to services. Pressure on staff is being cranked up, while Foley has had her contract extended by six months.
The best means to defend what has been gained is a clear programme of action for the new year. Workers need to maintain democratic control over the struggle. Officials nationally and regionally should support this.
Karen's sacking will go to tribunal. Although correct this will, as Dave Prentis admitted, "take some time", in fact months. The workers' call to resume strike action in February is crucial.
Sacking Karen has not broken the union. It showed the fight to save the NHS means defending democratic and trade union rights, and fighting the companies and bosses' parties which stand behind the Trust. Solidarity built through the day of action can be called upon again. The strike support group needs, as one worker put it, "to become a fighting forum" of trade unionists and service users. Broadening the slogans of struggle to defence of the health service and union rights will strengthen this forum.
The review of 'Changes in Mind' and the users' call for a user-led public inquiry is an opportunity to outline an alternative - mental health services led by staff and based on patients' needs.
Five weeks of strike action proved that health-workers will, when necessary, take industrial action to defend the future of their service and the patients for whom they deeply care. The day of action showed workers throughout the health service will fight when given a lead. Further strikes can reignite this. Other planned protests should be integrated into a branch-led plan of action, stepping up the mobilisation at each stage towards the strike.
There must now be no more prevaricating from Unison's regional and national leaders, who were at best slow to build the dispute. A minority of Unison's national executive, including Socialist Party members, can say they truly did their best to support the strikers. Any who attempt to delay the lobby of parliament or industrial action should be forced aside.
Politicians need to feel the heat. Prentis says he will talk to health secretary Alan Johnson. Prentis should demand Johnson immediately intervenes to order Karen's reinstatement. Unison-sponsored MPs putting an Early Day Motion to parliament will achieve little by itself. The lobby of parliament is more important. Workers need to ensure a date is fixed swiftly by Unison's leaders, to coincide with further strike action.
MP's Lewis (mental health minister) and Johnson (health secretary) should be challenged on "their" own turf. Instead of representing workers in Bury and Hull, they represent New Labour and the millionaires. Exposing their real agenda and mobilising workers against New Labour's privatisation could get huge support.
The council has played a disgraceful role during the dispute. It has the power to refer the cuts and the sacking to the health secretary, which would have delayed them and given the campaign more time to win. Instead the Labour councillors loyally retreated into their shells and no dissent was publicly voiced. Massive pressure through lobbies of council full meetings and the health scrutiny committee could force them into "calling in" aspects of the cuts programme. But they cannot be relied upon and Manchester's workers deserve better, real, representation.
It is likely the two Trust board councillors will be opposed by socialists in the local elections. We intend to stand against councillor Burns in Baguley ward, where Socialist Alternative candidate Lynn Worthington won over 10% of the vote in 2007. Others intend to stand against Burns' partner-in-crime Pagel. Council spokesperson Curley unfortunately does not face re-election in 2008. Council leader Richard Leese does, in Crumpsall which is the ward around North Manchester General Hospital. A discussion should start on how to unseat him.
Unison should stop funding New Labour. On the same day as Curley assaulted strikers in the Manchester Evening News, Unison officials were claiming councillors wouldn't take sides! This kow-towing to right-wing politicians hamstrings the union in the face of a government-inspired onslaught. That's why we say - back the call of rail-workers' leader Bob Crow for a new party of the working-class!
Manchester's mental health workers have shown enormous courage and capacity for improvisation throughout weeks of strike action. That is why workers across the country have rallied to their support. The Socialist Party is proud to have played a role in mobilising wider support and discussing the way forwards for the struggle. We pledge our continuing support to the fight to defend democratic rights, defend trade union rights, and defend the very existence of vital public services.