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NHS - workers looking for a fighting lead
A trade union activist in the NHS wrote the letter below to Socialist Party general secretary Peter Taaffe on the response to Con-Dem cuts within the NHS.
AFTER A meeting with my NHS trust management, who are pushing through redundancies, I had a surreal discussion with union full-time officials from Unison, Unite and the BMA.
We discussed if and when the mass of workers in the trust would take action in defence of their jobs. We talked about events in France and in what circumstances workers here would take similar action. The consensus was that it would come - the BMA full-timer even suggested some doctors and consultants would join in.
What struck me is the difference between now and the Thatcher era of the 1980s. Then there was a certain acceptance of Thatcher's position - a homogeneity of opinion amongst what, for want of any other way of describing it, is the professional and managerial class. Today they are not signed up to the cuts but fear for themselves and their future.
They find themselves pushing cuts and redundancies but do so with no enthusiasm, unlike 20 or so years ago when a layer of senior management pushed cuts with enthusiasm and some determination. Clearly now, given the lack of determination of those responsible for these cuts and redundancies, the ability for mass movements to defeat them is inherent.
One union full-timer described his conversation with a national HR (human resources) director in the NHS. This senior manager said he feared for industrial relations in the NHS.
He expected the government to attack the NHS redundancy scheme, forcing a levelling to statutory minimum as well as pushing through changes in the NHS pension scheme.
He could not see the mass of workers accepting this. He said that even British workers would respond like the French and that he and many others would have sympathy for the workers' position.
The full-timer felt this was a genuine view expressed in a candid moment. I think this is of real significance for battles to come.
In my Trust, Unison had about 300 members out of 1,000 staff (there are other unions here). But we recruited 200 in the last two weeks. We had two stewards. Two members who came to a recent lobby agreed to become stewards - doubling our representational base. Ten more people have come forward wanting to become union stewards. That's unprecedented in recent years.
We told senior managers this - they were delighted and willing to release them all to get them trained in the next few weeks. They said they were really pleased we were improving our organisation on the ground. The world really is a strange place at the moment!
Finally, members who came to the TUC lobby of the government before the spending review were all disappointed with the trade union speakers - except for Woodley who they said had some fire in his belly. Clearly ordinary members who have not yet played any active part in the union are looking for militant leadership.
Peter Taaffe replied:
Many thanks for your letter. It is significant that workers are joining the unions because of the prevailing and growing sense of insecurity because of the jobs massacre in the offing.
Equally important is your point about the intermediate layers. I also emphasise this in the article I wrote for The Socialist on the cuts (see www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/10463). As with France, decisive action by the working class and their organisations can attract these intermediate layers.
But the decisive question is, of course, how the unions react and that is connected to the role of the leadership. Even the organically sceptical Unison leadership can be pushed by events but this will take mighty pressure from below.
We were very successful in the demonstrations on 23 October, but Unison participation, at least officially from branches, was striking. The NSSN has played a key role, under our leadership, in pushing the more militant trade unions into action.
Such is the mood from below that this can force the unions - if not the TUC then the more militant left-led unions - into calling a demonstration before Christmas which could receive widespread support from the union movement as a whole.
In The Socialist 11 November 2010:
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party feature
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party review