Unity in action

Issue section: 
(320)

On 5 November I was sacked after 25 years from the job I loved as a community psychiatric nurse. Three days later 150 community mental health workers went on strike indefinitely for my reinstatement.

I might have felt a bit of shame and embarrassment if any of the trumped up charges were true, but I was even sent a letter on the day of my suspension promoting me to senior practitioner. My crime was speaking out about government plans to transfer NHS care to the voluntary sector and publicly protesting my innocence.

As a result my colleagues are taking 14 days of strike action. Their amazing commitment of time and energy is not just about freedom of speech and myself; it is driven by the frustration of working in services being cut to ribbons.

For a long time our trust has been underfunded, but it came to a crunch in 2003 when one of our NHS hospitals closed and moved to a private finance initiative (PFI) hospital. The beds cost four times as much in the new hospital, so we only had half as many. We lost 45 beds across the city.

This means that even if a patient has section papers completed they can wait up to three weeks before admission. You end up with a 20 bed ward for 27 patients. Patients are reluctant to go home because when they come back they might have nowhere to sleep.

The trust also managed to turn a £4 million budget increase into a cut for the ten community mental health teams. We used to have 16 nurses, but they reduced it to four, with support workers cut from seven to four. Despite this we only had 10 percent less patients.

All this made people furious, so we went on strike earlier in the year, stopping the redundancies and downgrading. You're not allowed to strike about cuts in services if you have a job at the end of it but we carried on campaigning regardless. I think they suspended me for continuing to campaign. If I'm a leading trade unionist in the branch and they discipline me, where does that leave individual nurses?

I went to see a junior minister for mental health the other day and I was the sixth person to see him that day about services or my case. It's on a scale I've not seen before, but the trust has been digging a bigger and bigger hole for themselves, upping the stakes when they should be backing down.

In our first set of strikes they closed three wards rather than discuss emergency cover with us. They sent some people home for two weeks, some to a private hospital where people couldn't leave for the five or six days they were there, they sent another 20 acutely mentally unwell patients or so to Darlington, for three weeks, with no idea when they were coming back, 100 miles from their family and friends. I just think that's cruel.

They've employed private investigators to investigate my case on a couple of hundred pounds a day. They've employed a private HR person for my disciplinary hearing. They've taken on 20 private beds for the duration of our strike as a contingency plan.

We lost 20 beds when we moved to the PFI hospital and suddenly they turn up in the private sector and we can afford them, but only for the duration of the strike. Now they've got a private PR firm employed. The money, time and energy they have squandered trying to get rid of me and break the union could have been spent trying to solve the problems of our service.

What's so inspiring is the way nurses, occupational therapists, senior support workers and the service users themselves continue to speak out about cuts despite what's happened to me. People still go to committees, write to MPs, do press interviews, organise lobbies, petitions and demonstrations: all the things my victimisation was intended to stop.

Our strike headquarters is a hive of activity. Over half the strikers are actively involved. Users of our services have been incredibly supportive despite the huge impact our strike action has had on them. They regularly join our pickets and protests, and speak out.

For years our union branch has supported campaigns by our users. We fought for free bus passes and daycare, and to stop Job Centres threatening people about work. People often ask me if I was offered my job back would I want to work there again. Well I couldn't ask for better people to work with - users, carers and staff alike. We have a passion for what we do, a sense of justice and a laugh. It's not just about me.


More information is available at the Reinstate Karen Reissmann website.