Saturday, October 21, 2006

A tale of two privatisations

I hope that some of these observations will be published this week in the excellent Labour Left Briefing. Given New Labour's continuing obsession with privatisation public service trade unions need to consider how best to fight to keep our public services public (and what to do if we fail).

UNISON members at NHS Logistics who took two days of strike action against the sell off of their essential, award-winning service to DHL deserve the gratitude of all socialists and trade unionists. There can be little doubt but that their strike action – during the week of Labour Party Conference – helped us to victory at Conference over the Government on the vital question of their policy on the health service.

At the post-Conference meeting of the UNISON National Executive Council the strike was rightly applauded. The principled determination of the strikers was, and remains an inspiration. There can also be little doubt that, even though the strike action came too late to prevent privatisation, the experience of the dispute will have helped to build up the effective union organisation which is key to surviving privatisation and working to return in-house.

Another, smaller and less well publicised but also significant dispute involving UNISON members underlines this last lesson. 250 low paid ancillary workers at Whipps’ Cross hospital in East London were forced to strike against a new private employer (Initial) who were refusing to honour the terms of a settlement of an earlier dispute following which the privatised workers had been promised conditions equivalent to those of workers still within the NHS.

The Whipps’ Cross strikers have recently concluded a successful settlement of their dispute – this was doubtless based upon the strength of their local organisation, which can be traced back to strike action taken against the initial privatisation almost ten years ago. The Whipps’ Cross strikers also deserve our congratulation.

The NHS Logistics strike was not only a protest strike designed to hit the Government for maximum political effect, it was also a sensible and pragmatic response to the need to sustain union organisation following privatisation.

It is nevertheless a shame that it was not possible to organise the strike action at an earlier stage, when the workers were first calling for it. It would be a mistake to think that privatisation cannot be prevented by striking early.

Late last year the Government announced plans to privatise the NHS Pensions Authority, the organisation which administers the pensions of health service staff. Organised by their union, PCS, the staff took a successful day of strike action on 20 January this year. Fighting without noticeable support from other unions, PCS fended off this privatisation which the Government has now put off. The threat may not have gone away but it has been defeated for now.

If we in UNISON want our members at NHS Logistics to be the last to be privatised out of the NHS then we clearly have some lessons to learn from our brothers and sisters in PCS whose members administering NHS pensions are still working in the public sector. Unfortunately, UNISON seems to be wedded at present to the view that privatisation must be fought sector by sector by sector and not through a unified cross-union campaign through which we could best learn from other unions’ victories.

A campaign about quality public services is not enough, particularly not when it is used as an excuse for our Union not to support proposals for action – leading to the fudged TUC position reflected in Composite 8 this year (available here) to debate proposals for the organisation of a national demonstration and campaign day to promote public services and to oppose the policies of contestability and privatisation, at the earliest possible date after Congress – rather than simply to get on and organise some action.

New Labour's ideological obsession with privatisation informs their policies for our public services across the board - and this demands an across the board response from the union movement.

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