Monday, February 26, 2007

Report from UNISON Health Service Group

I have posted bellow a Report from Nick Holden recently elected to UNISON’s Health Service Group Executive, given the original length I had to cut some of it, sorry.

UNISON calls a national demonstration in defence of the NHS

By far the most important item was the decision, by 16 votes to 6, to call a national demonstration in defence of the National Health Service. Karen Reissman from the North West region proposed the motion calling for a national demonstration on 7th July – the closest Saturday to the 'birthday' of the NHS. Speeches were made in support of the proposal by Mark Ladbrooke, Caroline Bedale, Harry Seddon and me. The point we all tried to make was that the SGE had a duty to call a demonstration, because we had been instructed to do so by last year's Health Conference, and that unless we did it at this meeting, we would have to go back to this year's health conference having failed to carry out the instruction. The situation in the NHS was worse than it had been a year ago, and all the reasons which led the health conference to call for a national demonstration remained. In addition, the involvement of so many UNISON members, and others, in local protests over the last year, suggested that we could easily have a very successful national demonstration, as people wanted to feel that they were not alone. Mark Ladbrooke, in particular, made a telling point – the cuts he said were being felt locally, but were being made in Westminster. “That is where the cuts are coming from, so that is where we have to go.” In contrast, Eric Roberts, speaking against having a national demonstration, said that we shouldn't do anything to alienate the other unions in the NHS Together campaign. We had to be either in the campaign or not in it, he said. Also, he believed more people would take part in local activity than would be prepared to travel to a national demonstration. Mike Folliard, also speaking against the proposal, said that those in favour of a national demonstration were “flogging a dead horse”, because there was simply no enthusiasm for a national demonstration on the issue of cuts and privatisation. This was a common theme for those against carrying out the conference policy, who repeatedly pointed to the consultation held in December over the activity to be held on March 3rd. These arguments were demolished by Harry Seddon, who ridiculed the idea that a ten-day consultation a fortnight before Christmas, in which two-thirds of the branches who replied had asked for a national demonstration could be used to justify not holding a national demonstration just because most branches had been unable to reply within the timetable. After the vote it was suggested that the date was not ideal, and a hurried discussion led to a change being agreed to 30th June. However, following the meeting, I realised that this is the date for this year's Pride march, and it would clearly be wrong to clash with that. Therefore there are currently discussions about the actual date, but the principle of UNISON calling a national demonstration in defence of the NHS has at last been won. Not bad for my first meeting!

There was some other discussion about fighting privatisation and cuts, but not much. We received a report from Karen Jennings about the work of NHS Together, and I asked about a leaflet and a supporters' statement for NHS Together which she said “UNISON and the TUC were putting together” for use on March 3rd. I asked if SGE members could see a draft of the text, but was told that “these kind of things” were done by the union officers, and were not for
SGE input. We could, though, see copies of the leaflet once it was written. That doesn't seem right to me, in a member-led union like UNISON, and I will raise this again at future meetings. There was also a brief report on the medical secretary's conference which was held late last year. There will soon be some guidance on fighting outsourcing of secretarial work, and a fringe meeting will be held on this issue at health conference. But there didn't seem to be much developed yet in the way of 'best practice' for how to win such campaigns, and clearly much more work needs to be done. In the East Midlands we've got a real opportunity to do some of that work when the next 24-hour health event takes place next month on this topic, and I would encourage every health branch in the region to make sure that you are represented at that event.

Manchester strike

Karen Reissman, from the North West region, reported on the strike by UNISON members in the Manchester Community and Mental Health branch. She said that they'd held two days of solid strike action so far, which had forced the employer to ACAS over their proposals to cut jobs and downgrade staff. 85% of the members had been involved in picket duty and leafletting, and she gave a clear indication of the benefits of a determined response to cuts: “Six months ago it was just an absolute fact that these cuts were going to happen. We refused to believe that. And we have now got maybe two-thirds of the way towards stopping them... The members in Manchester have shown that we can stop cuts, and that an active campaign can motivate members to take action in defence of their jobs and their services.” Further strike action may yet be necessary in Manchester, and the SGE agreed to ask that a request for solidarity donations be circulated in 'News from the General Secretary' and displayed on UNISON's national website. If your branch hasn't yet sent a donation, please consider doing so.

This Year's Pay Campaign

We were told that the Pay Review Body's report had been submitted to the Government. Now it is for the Government to issue a decision. Once it does so, there will be a meeting of the Pay Negotiation Council to press the union's claim for those staff not covered by the PRB, because management have said they wont negotiate on pay until after the PRB award is announced. The employers have already rejected our request to reduce the working week to 35 hours. And
they've also rejected our proposal to abolish band 1. There was no discussion about how we should respond to the employers' refusal to negotiate on these two issues, but Mike Jackson did promise a written report on them to the next SGE meeting.

Agenda for Change in private contractors

The Framework Agreement on Agenda for Change in private contractors is not delivering the improvements in pay for our members which they were promised. There are too many loopholes in it. Because of the slow progress UNISON has asked the Government to intervene. A letter has been sent out by Nic Greenfield, the DH Director of Workforce, urging Trusts and contractors to follow “best practice” which includes tri-partite meetings with the unions. If you've got private contractors who haven't yet implemented AfC, then this might help you get into talks.

New NHS Pension Scheme – already agreed, but still being negotiated

There have been further negotiations over the new NHS pension scheme. I found this disturbing, as I understood that we had already accepted the new scheme, and it seems wrong that we agree something and then finish off the negotiations afterwards. I thought this lesson would have been learned after Agenda for Change, but it seems not. Several SGE members reported that members in their branches “did not understand” the new scheme, which I think suggests that the ballot was held too early. We instructed the officers to urgently provide us with a report on the issues still under negotiations, as there was no written report to the meeting.

Learning lessons from the NHS Logistics dispute – next time

We received a report on the NHS Logistics workers since their transfer to DHL/Novation under the new name of “NHS Supply Chain”. The union is still denied access to the contract, and there are signs that the new management are beginning to flex their muscles over issues like sick leave and union facility time. Harry Seddon and I asked questions about learning the lessons from the dispute, and I also asked that we made a point of discussing the campaign we promised the NHS Logistics workers – to bring them back into the NHS at the earliest opportunity. The relevant officer agreed to prepare some information on these subjects for the next meeting, but did say that one crucial lesson was that in future disputes we needed to be better prepared for the Government's intransigence. “We needed more direct ways of influencing the Government, earlier in the campaign; dialogue didn't work,” he said. That's why some of us in the union were arguing to let the NHS Logistics workers take strike action earlier in the campaign, when it could have built up to have greater impact. If that lesson can be learned then it would be good for UNISON members in other services facing privatisation.

NHS Partnership Agreement

The NHS unions, employers and the Department of Health have just agreed a new 'Partnership Agreement'. I think such things are not worth the paper they are written on, since they tie the unions into lots of talking shops which have no bearing on our ability to organise members in the workplace, and are routinely ignored when management want to cut jobs or services. I raised a specific objection to the introduction to the document, written by Patricia Hewitt, which
said that the trade unions played a crucial role to give staff “reassurance” that “their voice is heard at a national level”. I pointed out that all the evidence is that our voice is not heard at a national level, and that the role of trade unions was not to reassure staff, but to organise them. Karen Jennings agreed to write to Patricia Hewitt, pointing out her mistake.

2007 Health Conference

The only debate was over an amendment proposed by the officers that would seek to delete a commitment to ballot members over the outcome of any pay determination in future years. Mike Jackson argued that our policy in the past has been to consult, but not necessarily to hold a ballot, and the majority of the SGE agreed to submit the amendment on that basis. I voted against, as I think the consultations held in the past have sometimes failed to adequately engage with ordinary members of the union, and we should give members the final say over
pay offers not rely on leaders trying to make the decisions for them. There were seven other amendments proposed by the officers, which were agreed without debate, as they were not controversial.

No comments: