By an ambulance worker
Ambulance workers in the North East have been taking industrial action since 17 June in response to changes in working practices involved in the regional implementation of Agenda for Change. The North East Ambulance Service is one of the 'early implementor sites' piloting A4C; the dispute therefore holds vital lessons for socialists in determining our attitude when Unison members are balloted on the agreement later this year.
In order to meet A4C's requirement for reducing the working week to 37.5 hours, the Ambulance Service management wants to exclude meal breaks from paid time - but still require workers to remain at their stations and be ready to take 999 calls during that time! Although workers would receive a £20 bonus payment for each call they respond to, the plan still represents a clear attack on ambulance workers' terms of employment.
On a 75% turnout, 96% of members voted for industrial action including an overtime ban, no event cover, no training on days off and no standby. Since the ambulance service relies heavily on overtime, the action is having a significant effect on its ability to operate. Unison branch secretary Ray McDermott estimated that something like a third of crews are off-road as a result of the action. So far, the situation is deadlock, with management rejecting overtures from the union to find a solution.
Ideally, we need a national position of protected paid meal breaks for all NHS workers. Equally, if the standoff ends with workers free from responsibility to take calls during their breaks, union members will need to be ready to defend that result. However, the dispute also has wider implications for Unison's industrial strategy over the next twelve months. The union leadership argued successfully earlier this year for members to endorse the piloting of A4C; despite the clear message sent by developments such as the North East ambulance dispute, some socialists in the union, including the SWP, are still refusing to call for a no vote in the second ballot due to be held in November.
The dispute shows the necessity both of preparing for industrial action against the consequences of Agenda for Change and of a political campaign against the agreement itself.