Rank and file action across one union

Pat McManus is a staff nurse at the Central Middlesex Hospital in London. He is branch secretary for the main health union, Unison. Here he talks to Peter Manson

Tell me about the divisions on the local level. Is it confirmed that Central Middlesex will be getting the full three percent?

Yes, but we’re concerned at what might happen to Parkside Health Trust, which covers Brent. It won’t have the money to fully fund the three percent pay award.

What are the strings attached to the three percent in terms of cuts and jobs?

It could result in cutbacks in services - not this year, but in 1996-97. It could mean redundancies. Unison have asked the pay review body for an eight percent pay rise, but at the very least the three percent should be fully funded.

So you don’t particularly object to the two-tier approach?

We do, but if we’re left in the position of having to negotiate locally, then we would like three percent as a base.

But surely we shouldn’t even be discussing local negotiations at this stage?

The problem that we have is divide and rule: we’ve seen this in the health service in the past. We don’t know what position the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives will take. If they do ballot their membership and return a vote for strike action, that’s setting a very clear and positive agenda. Unison are dilly-dallying about taking a course of action. They’ve called for a one-day ‘event’.

What is likely to happen on that day?

It will depend on how active the branches are. The more militant branches will be able to produce all-day localised action. But there should be a national day of action with a London march as a central focus.

Local action doesn’t get the media coverage it actually needs. Nurses should be seen taking to the streets within the capital, and saying to the public, ‘Come and support us’.

You were talking earlier about your hopes for the new union Unison. You now have a single union, but things haven’t changed very much on the ground. How can that be got over?

I think the biggest problem is in the last six years in the health sector we’ve been beaten, battered and bruised by this government.

Most trusts have gagging clauses in people’s contracts. Any action taken could result in disciplinary action against union members. This is something I thought Unison would do something about. We thought Unison was the bear which could roar its head instead of the sheep that walked away.

We saw in last year’s pay award on the clerical and ancillary side the leadership backtrack in the health service after the membership had voted for industrial action.

How can you get over these difficulties?

The lay membership is starting to gel together now. I was at the London Regional Council two weeks ago. We managed to get all our resolutions from the left through in a day. Last year the bureaucrats staged it so we ran out of time, so things are changing.

Local government and health, education and gas were all starting to get into bed together. We never did this before.

What happens if Unison ends up not calling national action? Is that the end of it? Is there any hope through a rank and file alternative?

I think the rank and file would organise against the national union. A lot of us were angry about what happened last year. There are various activists throughout the country saying, 1995 is the year we can create some change in the health service: we should go for it.’ There are meetings, small gatherings, up and down the country.

Looking back at the 1988 dispute, would you say there are any lessons to be learnt from that for the present situation?

They are quite clear and simple. Then we had a divided trade union movement, with Cohse and Nupe calling separate days of action. We don’t have that problem any more.

The workers took it upon themselves. Councils were set up within hospitals. At Charing Cross the bureaucrats were sent home. Full-time officers were shown the back door. But the lessons from ’88 could have been better with one union. It was great because we actually won a major pay award.