Unite’s ‘line in the sand’ must be enforced with strike action and occupations


ONE of the leaders of Unite, the country’s largest union, yesterday stated that: ‘A line in the sand over further privatisation of the NHS in London needs to be drawn.’

The immediate cause of this declaration is the proposed privatisation plans at King’s College Hospital (KCH) NHS Foundation Trust which involves a scheme ostensibly to cut the trust’s tax liabilities by transferring specialist equipment and staff to a private company wholly owned by the trust board.

Presenting this privatisation as just some kind of tax dodge is a smokescreen for the real intention of the trust – to cut the pay and conditions of the staff. Unite national officer for health, Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe, said: ‘If you cut through the complexity, what we have here is an attack on staff conditions and a further fragmentation of the NHS in London. Unite strongly believes that fragmentation has an adverse effect in the long-term on patient services – and that’s why we are raising the alarm at this trust. A line in the sand needs to be firmly drawn over accelerating NHS privatisation in London.’

This latest privatisation of the NHS in London is clearly the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as he is concerned but it is about time that Unite and the other health service unions drew a line in the sand and declared not just no more privatisation but to put an end to privatisation and the destruction of the NHS completely.

The privatisation of services has exploded since the passing of the Health and Social Care Act in 2012 which forced the NHS to compete with private companies for health care provision in what was termed ‘a new market-focused health service’.

Private companies such as Medirest, medical arm of the Compass Group, have for years been running the catering and most of the other support services at hospitals across the country. In fact, it won a lucrative £135 million contract at King’s College Hospital back in 2009. All these privateers won contracts on the basis of a ‘business model’ that involves cutting pay and conditions and introducing speed-up for their workers. This is crystal clear to Unite and every other union in the NHS and public sector.

Crucially, these unions have stood by and let it happen. Now at KCH they are promising a ‘line in the sand’. But the question has to be asked: just how determined is the union to sticking to this line? According to Unite, they and Unison have written to the KCH Trust calling for ‘an immediate halt’ to more services being transferred and set up for privatisation ‘until a review has been held’.

This is a cop-out – if you draw a line it has to be backed with a strategy of action if that line is crossed – action that cannot be confined to a struggle in one hospital alone or indeed confined to the NHS. At the end of January, cleaners at the sister university to KCH, King’s College London, came out on strike over the ultimatum from the private company Servest that they either take a cut in hours and increased workloads or lose their jobs. They were supported by students, lecturers and cleaners from other colleges.

There is no question that the fight against privatisation is a generalised fight by workers that demands a generalised and determined fight by the unions, a fight that will win the overwhelming support of the working class. The only strategy that can defeat the wholesale privatisation of every public service is for the unions to organise immediate strike action against any closures or privatisation along with the occupation of hospitals and wards threatened with closure.

The leadership of Unite and Unison and every other public sector union must prepare to call out their entire membership on indefinite strike not just to stop further privatisation but to kick the privateers out once and for all. This means these unions demanding the TUC call a general strike to bring down the Tories who are driving privatisation and go forward to a workers government. This is the only way forward.