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DUE TO the war in Europe Socialist Worker has cut back on its usual industrial reports. Full industrial coverage will resume next week.
by Paul McGarr
SATURDAY'S MINIMUM wage demonstration in Newcastle was initiated by leaders of UNISON, the 1.3 million strong public sector workers' union. They were pushed to take this excellent initiative by the feeling of delegates at the union's conference last year. UNISON members are not just angry over the government bowing to bosses over the level of the minimum wage.
The union's members in hospitals, councils and elsewhere hoped the end of the Tories would bring real change. Yet instead the attacks have continued under New Labour. In the NHS years of Tory cuts have not been repaired by the New Labour government. Trust bosses and the government are pushing the Private Finance Initiative ahead. In London's UCLH hospitals, for example, PFI means handing domestics, porters and ancillary workers over to a private consortium as part of a deal to build replacement hospitals The consortium includes multinational building firms AMEC and Balfour Beatty, which will run the new hospital for 30 years and lease it to the NHS at a considerable profit. The new hospital will have 127 fewer beds, 28 percent fewer nurses and fewer operating theatres than the existing hospitals.
UCLH is not alone. Similar PFI schemes are planned in dozens of hospitals around the country.Throughout the Tory years we were told by Labour councils that we had to wait for a Labour government and then things would get better. Labour even fuelled such hope when it committed itself to end the madness of Compulsory Competitive Tendering in local council services. This form of privatisation has seen services, jobs and conditions devastated as councils were forced to hand services over to private contractors.
"Best Value" is Labour's replacement for CCT. It is as bad, if not worse. It either means handing services over to private contractors or slashing services and council workers' jobs and conditions to the bone to match those of private contractors. Labour councils are also continuing to push through cuts in vital services. Old people's homes, nurseries and libraries are still closing under New Labour.
The latest attack facing many UNISON members in local councils comes under the guise of the single-status deal agreed between unions and employers. This was supposed to be a breakthrough, bringing manual workers' conditions into line with those of white collar workers. Instead councils, mostly Labour, are using the deal to push for a series of savage attacks on workers' conditions.
The attacks are stoking bitterness and anger among UNISON members. In some places people have decided they have had enough and are trying to fight back. Resistance In that situation people should be able to expect the union's officials to throw their weight behind the resistance. Yet instead those leaders at best drag their feet and all too often undermine resistance to New Labour. Even worse, UNISON leaders are devoting their time and energy to attacking those at the centre of building resistance.
UNISON branches that dare to stand up to New Labour policies find themselves targeted and witch hunted by the national union and regional officials. In the process the union leaders are trampling on basic union democracy. Individual local union branch officers and activists, many of them socialists, are also finding themselves subject to the most appalling smears and witch hunts by UNISON leaders.
UNISON LEADERS have stepped up their war on the left and union democracy in recent months.
In March they suspended the union's biggest branch, representing 18,000 Birmingham council workers. This came at the same time as UNISON members in London's UCLH hospitals and Sheffield council were on official all out strike against privatisation. UNISON leaders did nothing whatever to publicise these fights. Yet the suspension of Birmingham branch was prominently displayed on the front page of the union's magazine.
Union leaders and officials claim they have acted in Birmingham over a series of allegations about the running of the branch. These are simply smears and a smokescreen for the real purpose of this attack on union democracy. Birmingham UNISON democratically elected branch officers who wanted to resist the attacks being pushed by the city's New Labour council. They also agreed, along with 200 other trade union branches, to back the 12,000 strong lobby of the Labour conference last year. Last week some 200 Birmingham UNISON members lobbied their regional union HQ in protest at the attack on their union branch.
In Sheffield the attacks on the left and union democracy have been just as disgusting. UNISON leaders' attitude to the recent strike by housing benefits workers, an official legal strike against privatisation, was astonishing. UNISON leader Rodney Bickerstaffe ignored repeated requests from the strikers to come and show solidarity with the fight. Regional officials persistently tried to browbeat the strikers into giving up. Last week such pressure took its toll, and despite a defiant stand in the face of attacks by the Labour council and their own union, the strikers voted to end their strike.
UNISON leaders also launched a sustained attack on the elected leaders of Sheffield council branch. In the middle of the housing benefits strike they annulled branch officer elections and ordered a rerun. The union leaders did not send a single letter out to members in Sheffield about the benefits strike. But they did issue a smearing letter about the annulled elections, targeted at branch secretary Annette Careya housing benefits striker and Socialist Workers Party member. The union's leaders are also targeting Annette and other Sheffield members in an official "investigation"their crime was to back a walkout against compulsory redundancies last year.
In London's UCLH hospitals union leaders sabotaged the recent strike against PFI. Incredibly the UNISON leadership is pushing an official investigation and possible disciplinary charges against UCLH branch secretary Candy Udwin and branch chair Dave Carr. Their "crime"? Apart from both being Socialist Workers Party members, it is that they dared to issue leaflets attacking privatisation in the NHS!
All these attacks flow directly from UNISON leaders wanting to clamp down on resistance to the attacks workers face from New Labour. The target now may be the left, but they are a challenge to everyone who takes UNISON's claim to be a "member led union" seriously, to everyone who believes in union democracy and everyone who wants to defend public services against whoever is attacking them.
A GROWING number of UNISON members are sick of their leaders' attitude and are organising to press for change. They are demanding the union's leaders stop their assault on union democracy, the left and activists, and start standing up to New Labour.
UNISON LEADERS plan to step up their attack on union democracy in a bid to silence dissent. They have issued a "consultation" document on "the right to organise and campaign in UNISON". The document argues that branches must get permission from regional and national bodies before taking initiatives such as holding campaign meetings with other UNISON branches. It effectively gives the union's leaders a veto over branches taking up issues such as PFI and privatisation. Activists need to make sure the document is raised in their branch and protests over the plan are sent back to UNISON HQ before 28 May.
IN EAST London's Tower Hamlets UNISON members lobbied local Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick over a £1.6 million cuts package unveiled by NHS trust bosses last week49 health jobs could go
UNISON MEMBERS in Camden, north London, found themselves on the receiving end of a Labour council using Tory anti-union laws last week. The council, like nearby UCLH hospitals, is in Labour health secretary Frank Dobson's constituency. Some 23 rehousing workers began an all out strike last week against job cuts that threaten to devastate the service. The action was official and workers believed they had balloted following the restrictions of the anti-union laws. But the Labour council got a court injunction last week declaring the strike illegal.
THE UNION'S leaders' sabotage of the strikes in UCLH and Sheffield has given confidence to Labour councils elsewhere. The most blatant case came in Glasgow last week. The city's 300 library workers have been involved in a long running dispute over attacks on their pay and conditions. They have been striking and defying attempts by their own local union leaders to push through a rotten deal. That attitude by local UNISON leaders and the betrayal of the strikes at Sheffield and ULCH saw Glasgow council go on the offensive last week. It has sent new contracts out to the library workers saying that unless they sign they will be sacked.
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