‘Unison needs to use its strength and fight’

Interview with Naomi Byron, newly elected Unison NEC member and hospital worker

The right wing has lost control of the national executive council (NEC) in public sector and health union Unison. As part of this historic result, four Socialist Party members were elected. One of them, hospital worker Naomi Byron, speaks to the Socialist in a personal capacity

Naomi Byron

Why is the Unison NEC result significant and why were you elected?

I think the result is hugely significant. The fact that the majority of members on the NEC were elected on a programme of fighting for action on pay, and other issues, gives me real hope that things will change for the better.

It is the first time the left has had a majority on the NEC since Unison was formed in 1993. The test now will be for all of those elected to stand firm on their election programmes.

Photo: Paul Mattsson

I was elected in part because of this mood for change, and also because of my record. I led the campaign which won NHS sick pay for over 300 outsourced staff working at my hospital, and for us to be paid at least the London Living Wage. Our membership among these staff increased by at least a quarter.

When I told members at work I was standing their immediate response was to support me, because they know that I will do what I say. No trade union rep can win every battle. But when you fight for members day in, day out, they know you are in their corner.

I am grateful to my Unison branch committee, which voted unanimously to nominate me, and which has always supported and helped the campaigns for better conditions for ISS staff in every way it can.

What does Unison need to do for health and social care workers, and how can a 15% pay rise be won?

Put simply, Unison needs to lead the fight – on pay, on working conditions, on an end to the understaffing that has led to many NHS workers suffering exhaustion through chronic overwork.

Unison needs to lead the fight for proper funding of the NHS. Waiting lists were sky-high before the pandemic. We need proper investment in enough staff to bring them down. It is painful to see NHS and social care staff, or family members, struggling with health conditions that can be easily treated, but they are at least as far down the waiting list now as they were when the first lockdown started 15 months ago.

Unison is the biggest union in health and care. We need to use our strength. The more we show we are prepared to put up a fight, the more people will see that it is worth joining the union and getting active.

I believe that we need to start putting forward a concrete strategy now of building for strike action to demand an NHS pay rise of at least 15% (or £2,000, the Unison position, whichever is bigger), more funding and safe staffing levels. If the NHS pay review body doesn’t recommend at least a £2,000 or a 15% increase, Unison needs to announce a consultative ballot for strike action immediately. This would enormously increase the pressure on the government.

The ballot needs to be accompanied by an energetic campaign to explain how a health strike would work, and give as many members as possible the confidence that the union stands with them. If a majority voted for action, the campaign would need to be stepped up even more, with a proper strike ballot.

This should be further strengthened by reaching out and coordinating with other health unions as well as coordinating the ballots of NHS workers with other similar ones, such as local government.

Unison has the resources to do all this, and to counter the hatred and bile that would immediately be spouted by the government and establishment media about ‘greedy’ health workers. How greedy to want to be able to pay your rent! There is huge public support for NHS workers.

It’s simple: put forward a strategy that can win, explain it to members, and show you are prepared to fight alongside them.

As a first step I would like to see Unison supporting and mobilising for the 3 July day of protest for an NHS pay rise, patient safety and an end to privatisation. I am proud that my branch, Homerton Hospital Unison, is supporting and helping organise a march through central London that day. We are meeting at midday at University College Hospital, and marching to parliament. If Unison nationally put its resources into supporting these 3 July protests this would help enormously in building an even bigger turnout.

Now the left holds the three new presidents of the union, it should agree that the union should support the day of action, and call on all branches to support it. This would show in action what the start of a new left leadership means.

Outsourced workers in the NHS need the same strategy from Unison. It is fantastic that Unison has included us in the NHS pay campaign, writing to the main companies that provide outsourced services in the NHS, demanding NHS pay and conditions for all their staff who work in the NHS.

But we know that asking for what is right doesn’t mean you will get it. If that worked, many thousands of outsourced workers would already be on NHS pay and conditions and working directly for the NHS.

Just like on NHS pay, Unison needs a strategy to win NHS pay and conditions for outsourced workers and, ultimately, for us all to be brought back in-house so that we can be sure to keep them.

The outsourced workers who have won these things – NHS pay in several hospitals in Liverpool; NHS pay and conditions in Tameside; being brought back in-house in Imperial Trust in London, and in two East Lancashire Hospitals, just to give a few examples – all have one thing in common: they were prepared to strike to win these victories.

Until Unison and other unions put enough resources into coordinating the struggles of outsourced workers, these victories will be bit by bit. We could win so much more with a strategy to coordinate the fight nationally, and clearly state Unison’s intention to organise a strike if our demands are not met.

No one, particularly health workers, takes strike action lightly. But so many are so angry at how they have been treated by the government that they are prepared to. It isn’t just pay that is at stake, it is the future of our NHS.

The government plan is to run it into the ground, and then let it fall apart. If we don’t take a stand now, it will only become more difficult later.

In social care, Unison needs to lead a similar fight. There have been important battles where staff have stood up and demanded proper PPE and won. Resources need to be put in to bring workers from the care sector together, and coordinate a fight for a real minimum wage of £15 an hour, proper jobs with proper contracts, and to bring the whole sector back into public ownership so it can be run by public bodies which are more accountable, with proper standards of care.