Health, Education - Fight back together!

As both health and education workers make their voices heard in protest against attacks on pay, jobs and services, now could not be a better time to organise a united fightback

SUCH IS the outrage felt in the National Health Service over conditions workers are expected to endure that even the ultra-conservative Royal College of Midwives has voted overwhelmingly to drop its no-strike policy.

While nurses and midwives are up in arms over their one percent pay offer, it emerges that the man responsible for thinking up how much they should be paid has been given a nice little earner on the side. Mike Bett, chairman of their pay review body, is to get an extra part-time job - his three-days-a-week post in charge of the quango looking at changes in the civil service pays a cool £57,000 a year.

Bosses like Bett might be sitting pretty, but the strain of trying to cope with the extra workload in hospitals is hitting healthworkers hard. It is estimated that 37,000 dedicated nurses and midwives have left the health service over the past four years - the stress of working for a pittance as the NHS slowly decays has proved too much.

But this is just what the government wants. Capitalism can no longer afford the post-war welfare state to which all political parties were committed - and healthcare is one of the main casualties. For example, long stay beds for mainly old patients recovering from accidents and illness have been slashed - the government argues it is not the NHS’s responsibility to look after such people after their clinical treatment has been completed. Yet local council care budgets are also being cut, leaving the most vulnerable without access to many of the services they need.

Education too is a prime target. Like healthworkers, teachers are faced with daily increasing stress as their relative rates of pay have declined. The conditions many teachers and school students have to suffer is outrageous. According to a report by the National Union of Teachers:

Dundee teacher Mary Ward, Communist Party candidate in the forthcoming local elections, told us: “Depression and other stress-related illnesses are now such a problem that up to 70% of teachers are affected. The quality of education is decreasing daily: it is now more often a question of containment. There is no time for individual assessment and this will be accentuated by Tayside Regional Council’s £10m cuts.”

Teachers up and down the country will recognise this picture. Yet the NUT itself is doing its best to actually prevent its members from fighting back. It has issued a circular implying that the Fight Against Cuts in Education (Face), organisers of this weekend’s demonstration, is a “front” for “extreme political factions”. In fact it is led by headteachers, parents and school governors.

Like its health service counterpart Unison, it wants to channel its members’ anger along safe lines, such as last week’s teachers’ lobby of parliament (one teacher per MP). The bureaucrats do not want to lift a finger to actually mobilise their memberships. That is why Unison is so far limiting its protest against the one percent pay limit for nurses and midwives to lunchtime demonstrations on March 30.

Industrial action is far too risky, runs the argument. Much better to hang on until the new-look Labour Party is voted into government. But Labour is moving so quickly to the right that its policies are almost by the day merging with those of the Tories. For example, it now looks unlikely that the party will put a figure on its much vaunted minimum wage before the general election.

This is not surprising. Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor, told Britain’s bosses last week, “The answer to Britain’s economic problems cannot be to pursue regulation at the expense of competition and dynamism, and New Labour rejects that course.”

Yet deputy leader John Prescott had the cheek to say the party’s new clause four was writing the ‘principle’ of full employment and the minimum wage into the constitution. Apparently that is what “the opportunity for all to work and prosper” means. Brown, however, makes clear that Labour, like the Tories, is committed to the ‘free market’ - a guarantee that our health, education and working conditions will continue to be attacked.

Nurses and teachers can rely neither on the Labour Party nor on their union leaders. Only their own strength can defeat the onslaught.

Use this week’s demonstrations to build on the anger that is so widespread and start to link up across union lines.