“We can't fight cuts if we collude with them”: A letter to UNITE Health workers

This is a letter from UNITE NEC Health Sector members Gill George and Frank Wood to UNITE health workers. Since its distribution it has been adopted as UNITE policy.

Dear Colleague

We are writing to explain clearly our absolute opposition to the ‘Enabling Agreement’ being proposed by the NHS Employers. In our view (shared by many leading activists) the proposals are not in the interests of NHS workers – they are a recipe for division and defeat, for a savage combination of job loss and pay cuts, and for the tearing up of the national NHS agreement on pay and conditions.

What do the Employers want?

They are making a ‘generous offer’ – if we accept a cost of living pay freeze and the loss of annual increments and we give them a free hand to sack and downgrade health workers on Band 7 and above – in return, they will promise not to force through redundancies for NHS workers on Bands 1 through 6. There are some pretty obvious problems with this.

They can’t guarantee it, and almost certainly have no intention of sticking to it anyway. The Con-Dem White Paper, published in July 2010, will force all NHS Trusts to become Foundation Trusts, and is explicit that these organisations will have the freedom to opt out of national pay bargaining, and to do whatever they like with pay and conditions. So any national agreement we make with them now is not worth the paper it’s written on.

There is no real protection in this for any of us, including Bands 1 to 6. But if we agree to the loss of annual increments, we’re effectively volunteering for the tearing up of our AFC terms and conditions.

This is about divide and rule writ large. We’re already seeing mass redundancies of English NHS workers in PCT commissioning – most of them just ordinary health workers in public health, health intelligence, risk management and so on, who happened to fall the wrong side of the fence in the commissioner-provider split. They are now being joined by tens of thousands of NHS ‘managers’; a term that is elastic enough to include medical secretaries, IT support, finance, and team leads and co-ordinators for clinical services like district nursing and health visiting. Mass redundancies and downgrading of health workers in primary care is already taking place.

In this situation, it’s nonsense to pretend that health workers on Band 7 and above are the enemy, and that it’s OK to give employers the green light to attack them. When it comes to cuts and redundancies, the interests of all health workers are the same.

This is also an attempt to divide unions. Health Service Journal reports that one trade union has negotiated this deal, and wants to overturn the opposition from its own rank and file members and its national representatives. We know that our Unite National Officers are not playing this game, and they are right. The interests of all health unions – Unite, Unison, RCN, and all the smaller organisations – lie in standing together to defend jobs, pay and services.

This would be a disaster for the devolved countries, as well as for England. On paper, this applies just to England – but we know that the Scottish Employers have already looked at scrapping annual increments. The reality, of course, is that Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are going to be subject to the same savage public spending cuts as England. If the NHS Employers in England get away with this, then NHS Employers elsewhere won’t be far behind.

And the biggest mistake of all – we can’t fight cuts if we collude with them. Our new General Secretary Len McCluskey says unions have a responsibility not just to our members but to wider society – to convince people that all of us can unite around an alternative to savage cuts. He’s right. And there are real prospects now for building a united fight back, with the growth of anti-cuts campaigns across the UK, with unions talking about co-ordinated strike action, and with the TUC organising a massive demonstration in defence of public services on 26th March.

But how can we build this broad movement to defend the NHS and the welfare state if health unions are collaborating with the Tories and the NHS Employers to push through deep service cuts? The way we’ll defend our jobs and services is by standing shoulder to shoulder with other workers and with local communities, and building the biggest fight we possibly can.

We have to reject this ‘Enabling Agreement’. All this enables is more attacks on health workers! The Unite Health Sector National Committee is meeting on 20th January to decide our response to the NHS Employers’ plans. Members of the Committee will be consulting with their members between now and the meeting. The immediate response from many of our National Committee members has been along the lines of, ‘No way – this belongs in the bin’. They are absolutely right. There is no way this offer can be tweaked to make it acceptable. We can give a lead to other unions – also deciding their response – by rejecting this nonsense outright.

What can you do? Talk to your colleagues now about this rotten offer. Get in touch with your Regional Health Committee or OAC delegates, and tell them what you think. Contact your Health Sector National Committee delegate too. If you’re not sure who this is, get in touch with either of us, and we can put you in touch or pass your views on.

Unite has very clear policies: we stand with all our members when it comes to opposing pay cuts and redundancies. Now is the time to stand together with other unions and make those policies real.

Gill George and Frank Wood
Unite Executive Council Members
Health Sector

4th January 2011

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