by PAUL McGARR
|Picture: JESS HURD
HOUSING BENEFIT strikers lobbying Labour controlled Sheffield council last week
HOUSING BENEFITS workers in Sheffield started the fourth week of their courageous fight against privatisation on Monday. They did so in defiance not just of huge pressure from the Labour council, but also in the face of the most despicable attitude from their own union leaders. The workers voted on Friday of last week to continue their all out strike to stop privateers making money out of a service which people depend upon to keep a roof over their heads.
The council had voted days earlier to go ahead and hand the benefits service over to private company CSL after the strikers defied a get back to work ultimatum. The council says it wants to bring the privatisation forward to 1 May, even though CSL itself had said it does not want to go ahead until October. Pushing the privatisation through on 1 May would be a grim way to commemorate the second anniversary of the election which threw the Tories out.
If the strikers' determination and commitment to beat off this attack were matched by their union leaders the fight would be won. Instead the strikers are having to fight every inch of the way against those leaders. The Sheffield strike is legal and official. A victory against privatisation in Sheffield would be a huge boost to everyone who wants to put public service before private profit. The strikers' UNISON union is the biggest in the country, with 1.3 million members. Union leaders could and should have thrown everything into ensuring victory in Sheffield. Instead they have worked to undermine the fight.
UNISON leader Rodney Bickerstaffe has not visited the strike once since it begandespite being invited by the strikers twice. Backing from the union leaders would have given confidence to the strikers and sent a clear message to the Labour council that it had a battle on its hands. Regional union officials have been just as bad. Senior regional official John Cafferty turned up at a strikers' meeting only to urge them to call off the fight.
Official strike pay has beento put it mildlyslow in coming, leaving the strikers worried about their situation. Cafferty has now written to the union's national Industrial Action Committee which decides on official backing for strikes. He asked the committee "to review the effectiveness and continuing objective of the current industrial action"which the strikers know means asking for the fight to be called off.
In a letter to Sheffield UNISON on Wednesday of last week Cafferty went further. He argued that "anyone on strike at the point of transfer [ie privatisation] will be deemed to have objected to the transfer" and "will be treated as having resigned". End the strike or you'll all face the sack and the union will do nothing, is the clear message. The union leaders HAVE written to every UNISON member in Sheffield, but not to urge backing for the strikers.
Instead they have annulled recent elections for local union branch officers and launched a witch hunt against branch secretary Annette Carey, a housing benefits striker and Socialist Workers Party member. The UNISON leaders' scandalous attitude flows directly from them wishing not to rock the boat for New Labour.
"THE COURAGE of the Sheffield strikers has been phenomenal in the face of attacks we face from the council and the complete lack of support from our union," says UNISON branch secretary Annette Carey. "I'm proud of the strikers," agrees housing benefits worker Julie Burton. "It's not just about privatisation. It's also about fighting for workers' right not to be treated like dirt."
Every trade unionist should rush messages of support and donations to Sheffield. Every UNISON member should bombard national union leaders condemning their disgraceful sabotage of the strike.
DISGRACEFULLY leaders of the UNISON union ordered striking health workers at London's UCLH hospitals to end their indefinite action and go back to work last week. The strike by over 200 staff at UCLH which began a fortnight ago was an inspiration to workers everywhere facing privatisation. The strikers marched back to work on Monday, proud of their fight against fat cat privateers and the New Labour government.
The strike was aimed at stopping the hiving off of hundreds of ancillary staff to the private consortium heading the PFI bid this summer, with no guarantee of pay and conditions. This is five years before the private consortium even builds a planned new hospital. Despite union leaders' sabotage, and a virtual media blackout, the strikers won huge solidarity throughout the two weeks of the strike. Some 700 people marched in support of the strike in central London last week. There were 34 union banners on the march.
Thousands of pounds were raised throughout the strike and strikers spoke at over 50 meetings in just nine days. Everywhere strikers went they found that other workers were furious that the Labour government is selling off our health service. A victory against the privateers at UCLH, in health secretary Frank Dobson's constituency, could have blown a hole in the government's Tory privatisation plans. Even a House of Commons select committee recently called for a halt to all PFI schemes because of the dire impact on the morale of staff involved.
But the strikers' UNISON union's Industrial Action Committee ordered the "suspension" of the strike on Wednesday of last week. The day before, UNISON deputy head of health Paul Marks had addressed a solidarity rally of hundreds of people, congratulating the strikers and saying, "UNISON nationally supports you." But in reality the UNISON leadership betrayed the strikers from the word go. Instead of showing UCLH bosses how serious the union was to defeat PFI, the union's regional officer informed management that the "indefinite" strike would last for just two weeks. UNISON general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe acted as if this was an unofficial dispute. Yet 82.5 percent voted for the strike in the official UNISON ballot of workers among all sections across the hospital.
Many of those who did not feel confident to take action supported the strikers' fight against privatisation. Union leaders did nothing to build the picket lines to maximise the impact of the strike inside the hospital. They did not act when bosses called the police, who intimidated and harassed nurses and health workers who were peacefully picketing. Nevertheless strikers still persuaded post office workers, BT workers and workers delivering non-essential supplies not to cross the picket lines.
The strike grew during the second week, with new sections, such as catering staff at UCH, joining the action. Moreover the strike, like previous hospital disputes, was not aimed at hitting patient care, but at building support from other workers and from patients. Yet incredibly a letter from the leadership to all UNISON branches last week did not even ask for support for the strike. The leadership is pushing ahead this week with disciplinary investigations into two elected UCLH UNISON officialsbranch secretary Candy Udwin and branch chair Dave Carrwho have been leading the fight against privatisation.
Workers at UCLH are determined to keep up their fight against privatisation. As one striking nurse said, "We all feel proud of ourselves, of the way we stood up and made a stand against privatisation. We fought for our jobs and the future of the health service. We go back with our heads held high. It is our union leaders who should hang their heads in shame."