Bristol Politics, Green Politics, NHS, Protests, Railways, Trade Unions and Industrial Disputes, Uncategorized

The Green Heart of #Bristol’s #SocialMovements

I joined the Green Party back in October 2014 at the start of the ‘Green surge’. I’d became increasingly aware that they were the only party consistently talking about restructuring the economy in the interests of everyone to tackle not only climate change but also the spiralling inequality infecting our society.

Within a month I’d been co-opted into being the parties Trade Union Liaison Officer, and was busy organising support and ‘Solidari-Tea’ for the NHS strike that winter. Me and my colleagues in 13 different unions across the NHS were striking after the government refused to give us even the miserly 1% pay rise recommended by its own pay review board. After more than 6 years of a freeze on NHS pay, things are becoming increasingly tough for more and more health workers. Green comrades got up at the crack of dawn and came to join me and other staff on the picket lines bringing flasks of hot Soladari-Tea and coffee for everyone (very appreciated on a bitterly cold winters morning). The hot drinks and support helped contribute to the vibrant hopeful mood of the picket, and I knew I had found my political home.

In the little over a year I’ve been involved with the local party since then it has consistently put itself at the heart of movements for social justice across Bristol.

Anna on Workers Memorial Day

Green councillor Anna McMullan highlighting the plight of Bangladeshi Garment workers at the International Workers Memorial Day event in Bristol April 2015

We’ve brought Solidari-Tea to picket lines across the city. Joining the men and women of the FBU striking against unfair and unsafe pensions that would see 60 year old running into burning buildings, and the RMT fighting to protect jobs and services on the new Inter-City express trains. Most recently we’ve been out in force to support Junior Doctors fighting against unfair and unsafe contracts that could see them working more than 70 hours a week without unsocial pay enhancements for working on Saturdays or into the night.

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Junior Doctors and their supporters (including Green councillor Carla Denyer front and centre) picketing outside the BRI

We’ve sent support to workers at the sharpak Yate food processing factory fighting against the imposition of longer contracts, to teachers at the Winterborne academy fighting against unmanageable workloads and bullying management, to staff demanding their fair share from wage stealing bosses at Café Amore and much more.

Action for Rail

Greens campaigning for the Public Ownership of Rail at Temple Meads in Feburary 2015

We’ve joined the Bristol Trades Council in campaigns for the Living Wage, worked with Bristol Stop the War to build opposition to the bombing of Syria, and have been at the heart of the Bristol People’s Assembly and its resistance to cuts and austerity. We’ve taken to the streets to call for the public ownership of our railways with the Action for Rail group, and campaigned against the exploitative practices of rogue landlords and letting agents through ACORN the Community Union.

 

Rob ACORN

Green councillor Rob Telford at an ACORN picket of Tobie Holbrock who was refusing to repair unacceptable mould in his rental properties

Its been my great honour to be at the centre of most of this activity, but it was my leading role in organising the Bristol rally against the Trade Union Bill last November that was one of the most fulfilling actions. This brought Greens, trade unionist and members of the local Labour Party together with hundreds of ordinary Bristolians for a rally and demonstration in the fountains against the draconian bill, and imbued us with the spirit to resist these unjust laws.

 

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Concord Health UNISON branch officer Mandy Robinson takes to the mike against the TU Bill, with me and Green comrades in the background. November 2015

Unlike the Labour party that won’t support strikes because it thinks it has to appear to be neutral to look like a party of government, the Green party is unashamed in its support of ordinary people trying to protect their rights and improve their lives.  Just as it is unashamed of its support for all groups trying to enact positive social change. On picket lines, marches and demonstrations across our city the Greens are an increasingly regular and prominent fixture. Both in the council and in the streets of our city the Bristol Green party is taking a bold stand for people and planet, and I’m proud to be a part of it

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Bristol Greens joining the thousands braving the wet weather for the Bristol Climate March last November.

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Some of the Greens at the Bristol People’s March for the NHS 2015

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Greens protesting government plans to Scrap the Human Rights act and other things at the Bristol Makes Some Noise against austerity protest last year

Some videos: –
me speaking at the Don’t Bomb Syria rally-  https://www.facebook.com/BristolPeoplesAssembly/videos/1678031245741863/~

Anna speaking at ‘How do we Stop the Tories in their Tracks’ –

Green Party deputy leader Shahrar Ali speaking at the Scrap Trident rally –

 

 

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NHS, Trade Unions and Industrial Disputes

Govenment u-turn on FairPay. Victory for NHS staff?

Late on Tuesday the 27th of January the news started to come through that the planned 12 hour strike by NHS workers from 11 different heath unions had been postponed, in light of an improved offer on pay from Jeremy Hunt and the department for health.  Originally the majority of staff were to get nothing (as outlined in my previous post); and when union members struck, Hunt and the government refused to even meet union representatives, to negotiate.  Collective action by unionised workers (and the threat of continued and escalating action) brought the government to the negotiating table in the first place and forced from them this improved offer.  This is a remarkable achievement, but does it really represent victory for NHS staff?  These are the proposals outlined in Hunt’s letter to the unions:

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As its frames of reference are couched in the language of agenda for change pay points it may seem slightly confusing. Let me explain.

In essence the government is now offering to give all staff earning under £56,000 a 1% consolidated pay rise, with additional increases for the very lowest paid (around 5.6-2.2% for just over 200,000 staff).  This will be funded by freezing the normal incremental pay increase of staff paid over £40,500 (pay point 34). These staff still get the proposed 1% increase (worth less than the increment) up to staff paid £56,000 who get nothing.  This allows Hunt and the department of health to give the majority of staff a rase without increasing the budget or making good of his threat to sack 14,000 nurses.  From anecdotal evidence and my own experience at work those earning above £56,000 (band 8) were less likely to support the strike.  Nonetheless, this still alarms me as a move to pit the lower and higher paid staff against one another, instead of focusing on how its the governments policy itself that is attacking our working terms and conditions to pay for a crisis we did least to create. Finally the government wants to cap redundancy payments; and makes a lukewarm commitment to continue to use the Pay Review Board (who’s recommendations it ignored precipitating the whole dispute) to increase NHS pay in the future.

To some extent the offer addresses (in part) most of the core demands our unions balloted us to strike for.  These were primarily to implement the suggestion of the Pay Review Board to give all staff a 1% cost of living pay rise; to pay the living wage as a minimum; and to restore the value of NHS pay to pre-recession levels in the future. These are very modest demands and it is ridiculous that it required two four hour strikes and the threat of further twelve and twenty-four hour strikes (as well as lots of lobbying and action shot of a strike) to get an offer that even starts to address them.  In Wales where a Tory party ideologically committed to austerity isn’t in power none of this was necessary.

CSP assistant director Peter Finch succinctly surmised the offer:

“For the vast majority this new offer represents a better deal than originally proposed by government.  There is no doubt the threat of further industrial action was a decisive factor in the decision by government to negotiate with the unions.  This still isn’t a great offer but for 2015/16 it does at least provide a consolidated increase, which means it is pensionable and permanent. It does also re-affirm a commitment to the pay review body.”

The 1% goes nowhere near to mitigating the undermining of our pay by inflation since the recession (by about 10-16%). It doesn’t come into effect till the next financial year (conceding another cut against inflation to NHS pay for this year).  It also doesn’t address the increased workload brought about by the current government’s policies – the loss of 35,000 staff since 2010 and a 10% increase in patient numbers (as cuts to community care force more people into hospitals).  Worst of all there is no mention of the governments recent announcement that it plans to cut unsocial hours payments (additional pay for weekend or night shift) by either reducing the amount of hours classed as unsocial, or the value of these hours (or both).  For me, the extra token few pence an hour this offer would give me personally would be taken away many times over if these proposals for unsocial hours go ahead. We could ballot for strike action again once the government makes concrete plans over unsocial hours payments, but this could lose all of the momentum our actions have built up so far.  Furthermore strikes are most effective right now just before the general election as they focus attention onto the NHS (where the majority of people disagree with the Coalition policy).  It was the embarrassment caused to the government by our first two short strikes and the prospect of a 9am-9pm stoppage in January (and 24 hours in Feburary) that most likely caused the governments u-turn on pay. Waiting to see how bad the governments final plans for unsocial hours will be and then balloting loses vital time and could delay action past when it will be effective.  We need to push for the government to scrap these plans now whilst the influence of our actions is highest and we have the best chances of success. For these reasons I will be voting to reject the offer.  Securing this government u-turn on pay is a victory; but put against all the other attacks to our pay and conditions so far, and the looming threat over unsocial hours, it is insignificant.

I’ll leave you with the words of some of the other health unions that highlight some of the major problems NHS staff are facing that this offer does nothing to address. Though they are talking about nurses or midwifes in particular their comments describe the situation for almost all staff

Dr Peter Carter, Chief Executive & General Secretary of the RCN said of the offer: “This is a positive start, but there is more to be done. The Government must not let today’s breakthrough go to waste by ignoring the immense pressure and stress NHS staff are under because of chronic understaffing. The only solution to the recruitment crisis which is hammering staff morale and patient care is a sensible long-term workforce strategy with fair pay at its core.

Cathy Warwick of the RCM: “Midwives are caring people who work long hours to give excellent care to women and their babies, often working beyond their shift and through their breaks.

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Railways

Bristol Action For Rail – Join us for a Publicly Owned and run railway!

Fare-rise protest at Bristol Temple Meads railway stationOn Monday the 5th of January with about 30 others from The People’s Assembly, The Campaign Against Climate Change, the rail unions and The Bristol Green Party (who supplied the majority of the activists) we took to Temple Meads train station to protest yet another year of fare rises outstripping wages; and the whole iniquitous privatised system.  The clock had just struck 5pm and a great mass of people were rushing to get home from work.  At the pedestrian side entrance I was manning we were met by a solid and continuous stream of people; a great river of human beings rushing along their course.  We placed ourselves strategically to interrupt their flow.  After a long day’s work, as the light faded and the January cold set in you would think most people would be in too much of a hurry to pay much attention to a group of activists banging on about the relative strengths and weaknesses of different models of rail ownership – another obstacle between them and their home.  However, such is the strength of feeling against the current state of affairs on our railways that we were very well received.  We actually ran out of leaflets after an hour and a half – giving out around a thousand.  Only one person verbally refused me, explaining that she was ‘a conservative’.  Quite a few people even stopped to have fairly lengthy and engaging conversation with us – before rushing off for their train, or house.  Almost everyone seemed to regard us and our interruption of their commute positively.

According to recent polling by Yougov over 2/3rds of people support Public Ownership of the railways; including a majority of conservative voters.  It’s easy to see why.  In 1993 when making the case for privatising the railways then transport secretary John MacGregor told the House of commons that it would not only shift the cost of the railways from the taxpayer onto the user but would do so whilst not increasing fares, and that “in many cases, they will be more flexible and will be reduced” as the magic of private competition increased efficiency and drove down cost.  The reality (as it usually is) is far removed from this rose tinted neoliberal fantasy.  Since 1994 subsidies to the rail industry have more than doubled, whilst fares have risen far more than inflation.  Far from shifting the cost form the taxpayer to the user, privatisation has greatly increased the cost to both groups whilst allowing unaccountable shareholders and boards of directors (usually on six figure salaries) to line their pockets at the expense of everyone else.  First Great Western took to twitter to attempt to refute my claims that their overcrowded and overpriced trains were the perfect advertisement for why we need Public Ownership.  They repeated this tired argument that fares were rising as a result of shifting the cost to the user.  When I pointed out that this simply wasn’t the case they had no argument to reply with

FGWWe have some of the highest fares in Europe; for the least reliable service.  The only positive achievement the advocates of private ownership can point too is an increase in passenger numbers over the last 20 years.  It’s hard to see how the fact that the railways were now owned privately instead of by the state would be likely to influence the average person into using them and directly lead to this increase in passenger numbers as the advocates of privatisation claim.  Structural changes to our society have fueled this change – chiefly the spiraling cost of rent and general inner city living which has priced many out of homes close to work and forced them to rely on trains.  If the trains were still publicly owned during this period but the same structural changes to employment and accommodation patterns had occurred we would have seen the exact same increase in passenger numbers, possibly more so as Public Ownership can deliver fairer fares.  Research by Transport for Quality of Life has shown that if the railways were Publicly Owned we could have the same service as we have today but by eliminating the wastages and inequities produced by a fragmented privately owned system we could have it for £1.2 billion less.  That would be enough to cut fares by around 20%.

Even if you do believe that competition between private companies automatically increases efficiency and drives down cost (which I’m personally extremely skeptical of) you have to recognise that this is not applicable to rail travel.  Different providers can compete for franchises, but once established they’re the only ones operating trains along that line.  It’s not as if I have a choice of services between Bristol and London.  I can only ‘choose’ First Great Western or to not get a train.  This is why they’re described as natural monopolies.

The choice is clear.  If you want a wasteful, inefficient rail system that enriches the few at the expense of the majority then do nothing, and stick with the status qou.  But if you want a fairer service that puts the people who use it above shareholder profit then you have to join the campaign for Public Ownership.  Caroline Lucas has a rail renationalisation Bill currently going through Parliament.  Its second reading is on February the 27th.  Do everything you can to pressure your MP (your supposed representative) to attend Parliament that day and support it.  Unfortunately as none of the mainstream parties support Public Ownership (despite the wishes of their voters) it seems unlikely that the bill will become law.  That is why we need to mobilise behind campaigns like Action for Rail to show the strength of support for these measure, and come May, why we need to vote for MP’s and parties that support Public Ownership.

To raise awareness of and support for Public Ownership we will be protesting and leafleting at Temple Meads station on the first Monday of every month at 5-7pm for the foreseeable future.  Join us and demand the alternative to rip off fares and a failed, wasteful, and iniquitous privatised system.

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NHS, Trade Unions and Industrial Disputes

The NHS Pay Dispute

Over the last two months, NHS workers in Bristol and across England have staged two 4 hour strikes and action short of a strike over pay and conditions. The Bristol Green Party (and the Party in general) completely supports them in their efforts to convince the government to rethink its pay offer; and has been down to the picket lines to provide practical solidarity (and Solidari-Tea and coffee).  The unions have announced their plans to escalate the dispute with further strikes in January and Feburary; the Bristol Green Party will continue to support them in their demands for fair pay. Well motivated and properly paid staff should be at the heart of all visions for a health service suitable for our society.

The NHS pay dispute has been caused by the government’s refusal to honour the (less than inflation) 1% pay rise recommended by the independent NHS pay review body.  Instead the government proposes to give a 1% unconsolidated increase (meaning it doesn’t affect pensions, overtime or unsocial hours) only to those at the top of their pay band.  This means 60% of all NHS staff (and 70% of nurses) won’t get a pay rise for at least another two years.  NHS wages haven’t increased above inflation since 2009 (and have been frozen for the majority of that period).  In the five years that have passed since 2009 this has resulted in a 10-16% decline in real wages against inflation. I can imagine for some, attempting to support a family on these wages to be extremely difficult.  Especially as we enter the Christmas period. As wages have stagnated and the cost of living sored NHS workers (in tandem with ordinary people across society) have had to make significant cut backs to their lifestyles; this was highlighted by a recent UNISON survey. The survey found one in five NHS workers needed more than one job to make ends meet. 54% were overdrawn every month, two thirds have had to cut back on food, 51% have reduced their energy usage and 44% have cut back on transport. A massive 80% have had to cut back on holidays and 90% on leisure activities, leaving them with little opportunity to recuperate from stressful jobs with long hours.

Staff are already pushed nearly to breaking point as a result of continued attacks to their terms and conditions. To save cash and meet austerity ‘efficiency savings’ (the £20 billion cut to NHS funding Cameron promised he wouldn’t make) large numbers of staff have been down banded (being pushed to a lower pay band to do the exact same job); ancillary staff and services have been outsourced; and there has been widespread reduction in staffing numbers – often replaced with lower paid and lower qualified agency staff (though never at the same rate).  Over 35,000 NHS jobs have been lost since the coalition came to power.  Staffing numbers are now critically low, and it falls to our remaining health workers to pick up the buck. Recent research carried out by the Income Data Services (IDS) found that 63% of staff are regularly working in excess of their contact hours. The main reason respondents say they work more than their contracted hours is because they feel ‘it is impossible to do their job to a satisfactory standard if they don’t’ and because staff want ‘to provide the best care they can for patients’. Over a third of respondents (36 per cent) reported that additional hours worked are all unpaid. No wonder NHS staff (even Midwifes who haven’t struck once in their entire 132 year history – until now) are striking after the latest insulting pay offer.

The government’s health secretary Jeremy Hunt has tried to justify the miserly pay offer by saying that to give all staff a 1% rise would mean having to sack 15,000 nurses.  Strangely I can’t recall any government official outlining how many MPs are going to have to be made redundant so they can increase their pay by a massive 11%.  It seems there’s always extra money to increase MPs pay, fund wars, bail out bankers, or cut taxes for the rich and corporations; but not to adequately pay the staff who run the country’s most important public services.  Attacks on the pay and conditions of public sector workers and ordinary people as a part of austerity policies seems to be a deliberate attempt to shift the cost of the financial crisis (caused by the financial and political elite) onto those who did the least to cause it.  Whilst ordinary people see their living standards decline with the most prolonged retraction of wages since the Victorian times, banker’s bonuses boom and the super-rich continue to amass record fortunes.  Still we’re all in it together – apparently.

The strike, and picket is the most effect tool we have for making our voices heard.  Many people will say that it doesn’t do anything.  They may be right that it might not persuade the government to change its minds this time; but by striking we demonstrate just how angry we are about this insulting pay offer, and how we’re prepared to resist.  This makes it much more likely that next time NHS pay comes up for review in 2016 the government will think twice about freezing it again.  Furthermore, the chances of success are higher than many may think.  It is over the NHS that the majority of people disagree with government policy the most, strike’s cause publicity and force the public’s attention onto the NHS.  This is a massive embarrassment for the government so close to the general election, and makes them much more likely to come to the negotiating table and give us the fair and descent pay we all deserve.  That is why I strongly encourage all of my fellow NHS workers to get involved in the campaign for fair pay, and to join the picket lines in the new year.  Workers acting alone will not be enough to give us the NHS we deserve.  We need workers, patients, and the wider community all to come together to show our support for this most vital public service, and to broaden our struggles against poultry pay to include the much more alarming privatisation (see follow up article) that is undermining the very foundation of our NHS.  There is no better place to do this than on the picket line.

Bristol Green Party activists supporting striking NHS workers at Southmede hospital

Bristol Green Party activists supporting striking NHS workers at Southmead hospital

Deb Joffe on milk and sugar duty

Deb Joffe on milk and sugar duty

William Quick dishing up a hot cup of Solidari-Tea

William Quick dishing up a hot cup of Solidari-Tea

Green councilor Martin Fodor supporting the strike

Green councilor Martin Fodor supporting the strike

William Quick TULO, Tony Dyer Bristol South Parliamentary Candidate, and Deb Joffe Windmill hill ward candidate supporting the picket

William Quick TULO, Tony Dyer Bristol South Parliamentary Candidate, and Deb Joffe Windmill hill ward candidate supporting the picket

Dani Glazzard candidate for Cotham ward, and new member Kay with striking UNISON member

Dani Glazzard candidate for Cotham ward, and new member Kay with striking UNISON member

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