UNISON Health Conference: calm before cuts storm

Submitted by Matthew on 29 April, 2010 - 12:54 Author: Mike Fenwick

The Health Sector conference of UNISON on 19-21 April saw only very superficial discussion of the upcoming threat to the NHS and its staff.

Indeed, the agenda sped by so quickly that nearly all the timetabled business was completed a day early. It was called under the banner of “A Million Voices for the NHS”, but the voices of the delegates were generally quite muted.

We described it in our bulletin as the calm before the storm. Delegates had their heads down, numbed perhaps by the scale of the cuts to come, a pay freeze, redundancies and an attack on our pensions. Even general secretary Dave Prentis was quite subdued when speaking on Monday morning.

Attacking the Tories, he said Labour cannot take our support for granted. We would not tolerate a pay freeze. He made a commitment to lead any strikes over pay the members voted for. Rousing words that fell hollow on a conference that had heard it all before.

Health Secretary Andy Burnham visited conference in the afternoon and received the usual stage-managed questions that had been through the filter of regional meetings and full-time officers. One woman delegate just lost patience with him and challenged his answers, which reportedly shocked him. Conference responded to that but the mood soon dropped again.

Most of the debate on Monday was about our response to the attacks on the NHS. Strategy passed was OK on paper, as usual, and there were a few more nods towards working with community organisations and other unions than usual from leadership. By end of Monday we were already through to Tuesday afternoon’s business.

Tuesday morning saw the annual pay debate. Only one composited motion was heard and passed, which included a commitment to industrial action and call on the Service Group Executive to prepare for a ballot if there should be any imposed pay freeze.

The key word here is “imposed”. Because if a 0% recommendation (i.e. pay freeze) was made by the Pay Review Body (PRB), UNISON would likely accept it. It would have been the result of a “fair and objective” process rather than just the decision of the government.

Last year’s Health Conference debated the PRB. The left made the case for a breaking from it and returning to free collective bargaining.

The PRB is made up of current and retired health service and private sector bosses, appointed and given their terms of reference by the Secretary of State for Health. The Tories are just as likely to change the terms of reference and have them rubber-stamp a pay freeze as to risk strike action by ignoring the PRB.

Like New Labour, they’ll use it as they like to impose pay deals but be seen to have it all done by an independent body. A fiction the union continues to support and reinforce.

Business sped through in the afternoon, with the right wing only trying to slow things down in the last hour when it looked like the whole agenda would be completed in two days! Conference closed early on Wednesday lunchtime, and there was no improvement in the mood during the last session. Expectation seems to be that next year is going to be much more important when people are actually facing cuts. This chance to organise in advance of those cuts was not taken.

When the leadership won’t lead, the members must. There were positive signs that activists have started to organise themselves along these lines. The existing Health Activist list continues to grow and is a good resource for discussion and information around casework and disputes. The large attendance at the HealthWorker meeting demonstrates that there is an interest in sharing experiences and information between activists.

Workers’ Liberty supporters and others have set up a blog to support union democracy and rank and file initiatives.

We want it to develop into a source of rank and file news and debate on how to fight the cuts. Find out more at


To join the Health Activists list,email healthactivists-subscribe@unionlists.org.uk with the subject “subscribe”.

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