AND UNIONS ACT IN UNISON
[proposed article for Wildcat 17 – not published]
In August and September 1993, there was a strike at University College Hospital, London. The National Health Service is being commercialised, which means competition between hospitals for less funding. The result is that hospital management, an increasingly ruthless rat pack of yuppie scum, are rationalising the service by moving patients and equipment to more central locations, closing down hospitals, increasing waiting lists for operations and the time taken by ambulances to reach casualty departments.
The health service union, UNISON, played the major role in defeating the strike. Management had threatened six strikers with disciplinary action. One of the union officials came to see the hospital manager, and exceeded this by threatening three new disciplinaries. Nurses were unanimous that UNISON were making more threats than management, but failed to see why. During various demonstrations which threatened to get out of hand, blocking traffic, UNISON shop stewards ordered the workers back into the arms of the harmless protests, and the workers followed like sheep.
Local activists and outside agitators occupied one of the wards. Thanks to this occupation, we were able to organise 24-hour picketing, and watch management's' attempts to move patients and equipment out of the hospital, occasionally stopping them. The shop stewards tried to stop the effectiveness of the pickets by saying we should not wander around the hospital on our own finding out information, and when patients were moved downstairs ready for transfer to another hospital, argued that we should let them go, because we could not "play cat and mouse" with sick patients. This is sentimental poppycock -- if patients are well enough to travel to another hospital, they are well enough to go back up the stairs into UCH. The shop stewards, mostly members of the Socialist Workers' Party, came up to the occupation. They persuaded many of the occupiers to go home for a couple of days "to recover", claiming that they would be replaced by strikers and supporters, and announced that the strike committee would henceforth control the occupation. This was not an attempt to unify the struggle, but to sabotage the occupation -- the shop stewards kept the occupiers away from the strike committee until the very last meeting. People would be vetted before being allowed into the ward. Picketing and the occupation would be integrated, and a formal picketing rota drawn up. The effects of this were to stop the 24-hour picketing and destroy the atmosphere of the occupation, an intangible but important thing, turning it into a media circus where MP's could come and have their pictures taken, rather than a centre for defending the hospital. We thought it was an attempt by the SWP to take over the occupation, but it was worse than that. They didn't organise much at all, and far from flooding the ward with SWupPies, reduced the size of the occupation and made it ineffective as a base for picketing and spying on management.
We made numerous mistakes. There was too much respect for the strike committee. At the beginning of the occupation we just hung around waiting for the strike committee to support us. There was no attempt to go to the strike committee meeting and demand support from the workers. We should have set up an occupation committee, and tried to ensure its domination by the more politically advanced people involved, in other words, ourselves. Such a committee would have been able to send delegates to the strike committee, and argue against the shop stewards. There was a fear of being too well organised and openly political, well expressed by the leaflets we put out. The first leaflet was signed "Health Users' Group", a nice, non-political name, and the contents were similarly harmless, calling on people to support the strike, avoiding the union question completely, although the people who produced this leaflet are all perfectly aware that unions have been stitching up strikes since before the first world war.
The more advanced elements in the occupation held a separate meeting to discuss what to do about the leftist take-over. There was no agreement. A member of Wildcat argued that we already were a political faction, since we were having an exclusive meeting, separate from the occupation, consisting of people chosen solely on a political basis, and not because we were "local residents" who merely wanted to "defend our needs". Comrades responded that we mustn't fall into the trap of behaving like the SWP. But for revolutionaries to organise against the manoeuvres of the left, and tell workers that that is what we are doing, does not mean we have become like them. We should have openly fought as an organised force against union sabotage. Claiming that this would have given the SWP "more to go on" is wrong. The SWP sussed us out straight away, and moved like clockwork to neutralise our influence on the course of the occupation. There is no point in trying to hide our politics from these seasoned stitch-up merchants, and still less in hiding them from the workers.
When UNISON, inevitably, called off the strike, the shop stewards argued that it was impossible to continue without union backing, though union backing had not actually meant anything up to that point -- the nurses didn't get any strike pay until they'd agreed to go back. They also persuaded the strikers to vote for us to call off the occupation, arguing that continuing it would open nurses to the danger of disciplinary action, though the strikers themselves had not been responsible for organising it. Finally allowed into the strike committee meeting, we argued that continuing the occupation would show management that the struggle had not been defeated, and that giving up would be more of a threat to workers' jobs, as it would give the bosses the green light to go ahead with the closure, but the stewards were able to use the democratic structure of the committee to outvote us, and, without the support of the strikers, we had little alternative but to leave. The occupation was called off just as it was spreading -- occupations had started in Manchester and Birmingham. Immediately after the end of the strike, managers announced 2,000 layoffs in London hospitals.
We are not suggesting that the workers were straining at the UNISON leash. The workers sold themselves out, by accepting that the union is in some sense "theirs". The health service is unique in that it is not necessary to bring out all the workers on strike, since obviously health service workers do not want to harm patients, and that it is relatively easy to spread the struggle to other workplaces. The nurses tried to call for support via their shop stewards' contacts with other shop stewards -- a waste of time. They seemed to have forgotten that in 1988, a few nurses were able to close down car factories and the Yorkshire coal field (before it was permanently closed down by the government!) by simply standing outside, appealing directly to other workers for support. Some workers were shocked at the behaviour of management, let alone the union. This is because the NHS used to be run in a friendly, paternalistic style. British workers believe the NHS belongs to them, as they used to think about the whole capitalist state, which wasn't even true before social democracy was abandoned.
The working class in Britain has had 150 years' experience of trade unions sabotaging their struggles, but still has not organised against them to any significant degree. If this is going to happen it won't be because workers in particular struggles see through "their own" unions and draw all the right conclusions. Class consciousness and organisation doesn't just arise from direct personal experience but also from political study and activity. We know that the unions are always reactionary, not just from our experience in workplaces and on picket lines but because we are part of a communist tradition which remembers what most of the class has forgotten.
Revolutionaries and other workers in struggle are two parts of the working class which can learn from each other. From us, they can learn general things like the fact that all unions are anti-working class. From them, we learn specific ways in which the unions operate, and practical methods of struggle. Yet far from learning from their experience of unions, the workers think they can change them from below : five of them have become shop stewards since the strike. If communists are to be something more than a source of demo fodder for the Left, we must not be afraid to organise a temporary fraction within any struggle we are involved in, and to fight to give it a revolutionary direction.
Since the end of the strike, the "UCH Community Action Committee" (a bit more radical than "Health Users' Group", but still deliberately apolitical) have kept up small-scale actions against the closure - disrupting various meetings called by the NHS authorities to justify the closure and disrupting a board meeting of Wellcome, the multinational drug company which intends to buy UCH for use as a research centre. On November 19 they restarted the occupation of the ward and handed out loads of leaflets advertizing this at the Trade Union Congress "day of action" demo the next day. This demo had been called as a way of diverting anger over health cuts into harmless channels. Nothing much happened on it apart from at the rally where a rowdy element in the crowd kept up a continuous barrage of abuse against the union bureaucrats and TV celebrities on the stage, often preventing them from speaking. A banner was displayed characterizing the TUC as "Tories' Unofficial Cops". It remains to be seen if the occupation can gain enough support to revitalize the struggle against hospital closures and start to break it away from the debilitating influence of the unions. The Health Users' Community Action folk can be contacted at BM CRL, London WC1N 3XX.