Struggle and acceptance

Last week Unison's health group conference voted to recommend acceptance of the 'Agenda for change', a so-called modernisation package. There will be a national membership ballot in May. This is unfortunate. 'Agenda for change' represents an attack on pay and terms and conditions for health service workers. Even though the package involves a reduction in unsocial hours payments and offers a very poor protection agreement for those who would lose basic pay - at least 80,000 workers - the union bureaucracy was keen to see the package endorsed by conference. They got their way by convincing delegates that they had managed to secure a commitment to on-going negotiation from the government. At the height of the FBU dispute last November, the government announced that unions representing health workers had agreed to a 10% pay increase over three years. No such agreement had been reached. Rather, this manoeuvre was an attempt to undermine the firefighters by portraying health workers as progressive and amenable to change. Delegates seemed to understand this, as they did the argument that 10% over three years is effectively a pay cut or, at best, a pay freeze. The organised left in the shape of Unison United Left was successful in mobilising a number of good speakers and was able for the first time to draw a core of union activist around it. In part, UUL is a result of the belated turn towards standing in union elections made by the SWP a few years ago. However, one argument that was not successfully won was that 'Agenda for change', as it stands, contains the fundamentals of performance related pay. If this is introduced it would result in a shift in culture in the NHS and make it easier for the government to impose further privatisation measures. In this way the package has implications that run far deeper than its initial appearance would suggest. In effect, it represents a threat to our class as a whole. Encouragingly, about a quarter of the conference delegates were attending for the first time. Together with a tentative increase in disputes nationally, this may be a sign that health workers will see the 'modernisation' package for what it is. Therefore, what is needed now is not only for activists to take a lead at local level but initiative from above. It seems unlikely that this will come from the bureaucracy. So responsibility falls to UUL. However, there is a danger that some will translate this into mere left posturing. After two decades of defeat for the working class as a whole, a democratic and political culture that can feed into and enrich the process below is desperately needed. Ethan Grech