How to build a fightback – and how not to

Terry Conway looks at whats going on:

The TUC organised a week of ‘action’ from February 8-14 under the rubric Heart Unions week. The centrepiece was a Big Workplace meeting hosted by comedian Eddie Izzard in which TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady put forward the case against the trade union bill. The event was broadcast on the internet and many workplaces held simultaneous meetings across the country.

No one objects to unions using new technology to explain why the bill must be opposed – and why people should join a union. No one objects to lobbying Parliament – or even writing to a Lord – after all Britain’s second chamber has become relatively critical of the government over recent months. But what’s needed to turn the situation around is much, much more.

The Bill would
• Allow employers to bring in agency workers as strikebreakers
• Further restrict the organisation of effective picket lines
• Restrict time off for union duties for public service workers
• Stop the collection of union subscriptions through pay packets

Most importantly it sets rules in strike ballots in “important public services” which would require a 50% turn out and 40% of the electorate voting yes – so 80% of those voting on a 50% turnout. The turnout is a requirement throughout – and electronic or workplace balloting are not allowed.

Proposals in the initial draft of the Bill that would have restricted union activists’ freedom to use social media to promote their union campaigns and contact members were reluctantly dropped by ministers after even Tory MPs objected.

These measures are designed to fundamentally undermine the ability to strike in Britain.

The Bill was agreed in a rush by the House of Commons before Christmas and is now being discussed in the House of Lords before coming back to the Commons for final agreement.

Trade unions in Britain are not in a good state. Strike levels are at very low levels – despite the fact that job losses and attacks on conditions are rife. The unions that have better levels of recruitment – and participation – such as the rail union RMT or the fire brigades FBU are those which are prepared to take action to defend members’ conditions. Unfortunately these also tend to be the smaller unions which don’t organise in the industries where most people work. Leaders there have been much more ready to take an approach of doing things hand in hand with the employer– often using existing anti-union legislation as an excuse. Such an approach will not be the basis of defeating the bill.

Doctors fightback

The TUC campaign didn’t make it into the mainstream media – but one group of workers fighting to defend their conditions did hit the headlines. Junior doctors in England are fighting to stop their existing contracts being torn up by hated Heath Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

2016-01-12 08.21.44The Tory proposals would mean a cut in pay for many of up to 25% of their already miserly wages – basic pay starts at £22,000 – through the loss of allowances for working anti-social hours. But the dispute is much more than anger over poor pay and more work for less: the doctors and their union – the British Medical Association – are also concerned that the excessive hours of work that they are convinced would result from the new contract won’t be safe for doctors or for patients.
On Wednesday February 10, the doctors took a second day of industrial action. The first, on January 10 2016, followed a successful ballot in November last year in which a remarkable 98% voted to strike on a 75% turnout. I.2 million other staff working in the health service know that if the junior doctors are beaten then the Agenda For Change agreement guaranteeing additional payments for “unsocial hours” – nights and weekends – that many, especially lower-paid staff depend on will also be attacked.

In addition student nurses are already protesting the removal of their bursaries that compensate for the unpaid work they are required do on wards at times when other students can take paid jobs.

Already staff throughout the NHS have suffered more than five years of real pay cuts, cutting the real terms value of pay by 16% or more, with more below inflation increases to come.

There was again a solid turn-out and huge public support for the junior doctors’ strike – cars hooting in support, people taking badges and leaflets as well as visiting picket lines – often bringing warm drinks. People recognise that doctors and other health professionals work extremely hard – and no one wants to be operated on by someone who is half-asleep! I certainly had lots of smiles wearing my badge after the picket line.
From that point of view it seems that one of the Tories gambles may not be paying off. The government line throughout is that what is at stake is the need to establish a vaguely-defined “7 day NHS”, blatantly misquoting and distorting figures on death rates for patients admitted to hospital at weekends. That’s clearly seen by almost all who work in the health service, and a huge section of the public as being the lie it is: emergency services and care for those requiring urgent admission already functions 7 days a week, and the junior doctors point out that the government is claiming to cover additional days of work with no extra money in the budget and no extra staff. In other words any increase in weekend staffing could only come at the expense of fewer doctors covering shifts during the main part of the week, when most work is done!

The Tories hoped to show a health service in chaos, so that they could press forward their idea that NHS as we know it is “unsustainable” – on both financial and clinical grounds – thus opening up a new debate on what has to be done instead. Hunt is trying to make “unthinkable” plans to break up the NHS thinkable – and doable. Privatisation of the NHS is the name of the Tory game. But they have lost ground, rather than gained it, in the dispute.

2016-02-10 09.24.35Later on that day of the second strike, Jeremy Hunt upped the stakes further by saying he was making a final ‘offer’ to the doctors. Rumours were flying that if this wasn’t accepted the contract would be imposed. The BMA made clear that they could not agree to this – but were putting forward their own alternative which wouldn’t cost any more. The Tories did not accept this – and the following day announced they would impose the contract.

At time of writing, the BMA are still discussing their next move – though it’s clear they intend to keep fighting. There was a lively protest on February 11 outside parliament by health workers and their supporters denouncing the imposition and there are strong calls for Hunt to resign – especially after it became clear that his decision is not supported by two thirds of the NHS Chief Executives whose names Hunt listed as favouring his imposition. There are debates over the legality of any imposition and the possibility that local hospital trusts in England could follow the Welsh and Scots devolved governments and refuse to implement the new contract.
So this popular cause could easily act as a focus to explain why we need effective trade unions and so need to defeat the Trade Union Bill. Unfortunately the response from the trade union movement as a whole is sorely lacking, even though they are all too aware of the body blow that they would suffer if the Bill becomes law.
Health and local government unions in particular, which rely heavily on the “check-off” system to deduct subscriptions directly from wages, would have to go round and persuade their members to take out direct debit payments – effectively recruiting them again to the union – and many workplaces lack the activist base to do this effectively.

They note that when the civil service union PCS was blocked from using check-off in one of the government ministries, they lost in excess of a third of their members. If this was replicated in other public services, UNISON, the biggest union in local government and the NHS could lose enough members and income to force the closure of regional offices and mass redundancies of officials: and they are also threatened by the savage requirements on ballots before they can threaten strikes in defence of pay and conditions.

In this sense the current attacks on the basic pay and conditions of all health workers seems to be a real do or die test that the unions need to be gearing up for with full-scale support for the junior doctors. But it’s hard to see any such conviction from the union leaders. Health workers do appear in the publicity for Heart unions week, but the dispute was not mentioned at all in the publicity or in the Big Workplace meeting. The TUC hasn’t even issued a press statement in support of the strike or against the imposition – whereas new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did just that.

The two main unions who organise other health workers, UNISON and Unite, have issued statements – but somewhat hidden away on their websites. UNISON head of Health Christine McAnea stated in a radio interview that the union would take action if members’ shift allowances were threatened – but didn’t offer any fresh words of solidarity to the doctors.

Calls are circulating for the TUC, together with the Labour Party, to call a demonstration in support of the junior doctors, who could yet stage further strikes. This could be important in turning around the situation – individual unions could support that as well as organise visits to any doctor’s picket lines that arise in the meantime. The anti-Austerity campaign, the People’s Assembly have made a welcome and quick to call a central London rally this week to support the doctors and the NHS which will provide a focus for further discussion.

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