Archive: NHS rank and file must take the lead!

18 December 2022

From the archive: This article contains vital lessons for today from Workers Power no. 36, October 1982.

THE THATCHER government has decided to try and defeat the health workers by dramatically upping the stakes in the dispute. The widely publicised ‘Think Tank’ report, which proposed a short term programme of scrapping the NHS altogether was a blatant provocation to the health workers. While it has been shelved for the time being (out of electoral consideration) its objective of savaging the NHS and boosting private medicine is still being pursued oy the Tories.

For the Tories, defeating the health workers is integral to their strategy of dismantling the health service, albeit bit by bit. This is what the bosses are now openly clamouring for. In an attack on Thatcher from the right, Walter Goldsmith of the influential Institute of Directors complained, ‘The greatest failure of the Thatcher government and that giving greatest concern to its business supporters is the fact that it has proved unable to reduce the 45% of gross national product consumed by the public sector’.

Through a programme of gradual cuts and gradual closures the Tories aim to deliver the goods to their backers. As well as cuts the Tories have thrown down another gauntlet—the 3.5% pay limit for the public sector in the coming pay round. It makes the present dispute all the more vital for thousands of workers in the health and throughout the public sector. Victory for the health workers now can mean defeat for a cornerstone of the Tories pay strategy.

Last month, we argued that the trade union bureaucrats at the head of the health service unions, principally Albert Spanswick of COHSE and Rodney Bickerstaffe of NUPE, were squandering the rank and file militancy that could win the dispute. Now after the Tories’ provocation and after the day of action in which hundreds of thousands showed their readiness to fight, those same leaders continue on their disastrous course.

The way to win the strike is to launch an all-out indefinite strike in the health service (with emergency cover being decided on by the health workers themselves) combined with solidarity strike action from other sections of workers. With the government’s 3.5% pay limit and the NCB’s refusal to grant the miners’ claim the case for solidarity is strengthened. The pay fight can be broadened by workers bringing forward their claims and striking alongside the health workers.

However, no such calls can be heard from Congress House. Furthermore Spanswick, Bickerstaffe and co are in fact opposed to such a determined course of action. For example, when London’s ambulance men decided overwhelmingly to go on strike on September 22nd they were immediately rounded on by Spanswick and NUPE’s National Officer Bob Jones. Instead of support the ambulance men received exhortations to abide by the management’s emergency cover schemes.

Bickerstaffe on the day of action could offer only more days of action. He refused to use the platform to call for the implementation of NUPE’s conference policy on an indefinite all-out strike. In arguments with Workers Power health workers after his speech Bickerstaffe maintained that he was not prepared to go any further than the TUC health services committee and was definitely not willing to launch a campaign in support of NUPE’s policy aimed at the rank and file of the other unions.

Bickerstaffe may sound more militant than Spanswick, but then words are cheap. When it comes down to it he accepts Spanswick’s strategy of allowing this strike, like a popular show, to run and run. Albert Spanswick summed this up saying, ‘The TUC campaign will now get much harder and there will be more thrust to it. This campaign will go on indefinitely’ He also insisted, ‘we are not in the business to have a national strike as such because a national strike is used to bring down governments.’

If the government falls because of a national strike to win fair pay for health workers then so much the better. But, if the campaign is dragged on ‘indefinitely’ then the government stands every chance of riding out the dispute. The militancy will be worn down by days of action, like the coming series of rolling strikes, which appear increasingly pointless to many workers. Militants must act now to check this sorry tale of misleadership. They must mobilise the militancy that exists and not allow it to be dissipated. They must take the dispute out of the hands of the bureaucrats and place it in the hands of the rank and file.
The build-up to September 22nd and events since then show how this can be done. In Sheffield and Leicester Workers Power health workers played a vital role in organising rank and file actions. Our regular health workers bulletin, Red Pulse, has repeatedly put the case for indefinite strike action. Its influence played a role in winning the majority of the Sheffield hospitals, for example, to support a call for indefinite action.

Our supporters played a leading role in getting the Area Joint Shop Stewards Committee to make direct appeals to rank and file workers in the steel and engineering industry. As a result both industries were almost solid in their support for the day of action. At the Laycocks Engineering plant, for example, after a mass meeting addressed by a Workers Power health worker, a vote of 600–29 decided to strike for the day.

This militancy and the links that have been established must be built upon. In Leicester the Health Strike Co-ordinating Committee has taken important steps in doing just this. It has established an Action Committee open to delegates from unions who took action at conferences of rank and file delegates to discuss taking the dispute forward.

It has also called for a national conference of delegates from health workers’ stewards and strike committee in late October. This call has been endorsed by Nether Edge hospital joint shop stewards committee in Sheffield. Every militant in the NHS must build for this conference. It could become the springboard for organising a rank and file alternative leadership to the ditherers in the TUC health service committee.

This conference, which must be open to resolutions from all delegating bodies and must be conducted in an open and democratic fashion, must commit delegates to building co-ordinated indefinite strike action. The weakness before has been that areas taking such action did so in isolation. This conference can ensure that this is no longer the case. It must resolve to organise the maximum forces in co-ordinated strike action to win the full 12% with the officials’ support if it can win it, without it if it can’t.

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