January 2, 2015
By Christopher Balchin
Ferocious onslaughts against unions are taking place not only in the United States, but also elsewhere. For example, since 1948 people living in Britain have had the inestimable good fortune of having a free, government-run, not-for-profit health care system: the National Health Service (NHS), staffed by unionized doctors, nurses and technicians.
Since then countless Britons owe their health, and in some cases their lives, to the NHS. It was NHS doctors, nurses, physical therapists, clinicians, and social workers who saved my father’s leg when he had a life-threatening aneurism, and who healed and nurtured my mother when she broke her wrist and leg simultaneously. There were no bills, no insurance companies to deal with, no staggering, life-ruining debt. My family represents millions.
Assaults on the NHS, Unions and the People of England
This kind approach to health care for all is being threatened. Under the guise of “efficiency,” “streamlining,” “cost-management,” the UK government is working to chop up, privatize and essentially kill the NHS, as moneys are diverted to for-profit companies. In England the results have already been devastating. According to the Daily Telegraph(10/26/2014), a total of 66 Accident & Emergency, and maternity units have either been cut or closed, with “dozens more now under threat.” The Guardian reports that since the Social Care Act of 2012, 35,000 people have been axed from the NHS, including 5,600 nurses, and half the ambulance stations (600) have been closed. Dr. Steve Taylor of Birmingham Heartlands Hospital said:
“privatization is taking doctors and nurses away from frontline care…and potentially jeopardizing the fantastic services that we have spent years trying to build.” (Huffington Post UK)
Following a two-year pay freeze, NHS workers were denied an increase in pay. The scorn with which the government and its business allies see them, and the prospect of losing pension benefits and overtime pay, are terrific insults to the important work they do, and to their dignity. For the first time in 32 years, NHS employees have taken to work stoppages and other strike actions.
It’s crucial for people in the UK and elsewhere to know this: their enemy is not just any one particularly scurrilous government; the enemy is inherent in profit economics itself. Unions, I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism—the education founded by the American philosopher, poet, and critic Eli Siegel—have been the greatest force fighting for justice on behalf of working people: sick pay, decent pensions, reasonable hours, safety laws, and respect! As the government contracts out more and more pieces of the NHS, the hundreds of thousands of unionized employees in the NHS belonging to Unison, Unite the Union, Royal College of Nursing, and others, stand between big corporations and private equity funds, and the taxpayers’ money these organizations are thirsting for. Every pound earned by members, every improvement in safety or working conditions won and protected by health care unions, is a huge interference with private profit. Consequently, along with the attacks on the NHS there have been assaults on unions.
Why Is This Happening? And Why Now?
It’s pretty clear to many in the UK that some of the loudest voices calling for cuts belong to people who stand to profit from privatization, including at least 70 MPs—some high in government. According to Hajera Blagg of the union UNITE:
“MPs have benefited to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations, share options, and other deal-sweeteners from the private health care industry.”
Some previous governments have wanted to privatize the NHS, but have never dared–until now. What is happening to the NHS in Britain corresponds to the vigorous attempts to privatize public services in the US—including the postal service and education system.
In 1970 Eli Siegel—providing much historical and economic evidence—explained that the world’s profit-driven economies could no longer flourish because they are based on the ugliest thing in man: contempt. Contempt is the feeling that you will be more by making less of another person. It is what had factory owners in the 19thcentury demand 14-hour days from workers while paying them as little as they could, even as their families were starving. Contempt is the reason someone today can even think that profits for oneself are more important than whether another person lives or dies.
And, in recent years Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, has been documenting the efforts of corporate America (with the help of some state governments) to keep a dying thing—the profit system—going. Writing about the American economy in her commentary in an issue of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, she explains:
“There has been a huge effort in the last decade to privatize publicly run institutions. The technique is to disseminate massive propaganda against the public institutions, and also do what one can to make them fail,including through withholding funding from them. The desire is to place them in private hands—not for the public good, not so that …people can fare well—but to keep profit economics going.
“The purpose of privatizing what…people as a whole own is 1) to provide new means for private profits to be made—which is necessary if profit economics is to continue at all; and 2) to have people feel that the non-profit or public way of owning and employing does not work and that the only way things can possibly be run is through the profit system!”
This is whythe NHS is lied about and made to seem inefficient and too expensive. One health care worker taking part in a recent protest commented, “We have been vilified for the last four years and our jobs have been made more difficult by the unnecessary restructuring of the NHS which wasted millions…” There is also coming to be a passionate resistance. The reason is embodied in something that Dr. Richard Taylor of the newly formed National Health Action Party, said:
“The marvelous thing about working in the NHS…was that one could treat everyone in exactly the same way, regardless of wealth, social status or location…All people are equal in their health care needs and in the respect they deserve.”
The Fight to Save Britain’s Not-For-Profit Health Care
Many people are willing to fight for the NHS. All over the UK, hundreds of national, regional, and local organizations in support of the NHS have been springing up. There is abeautiful musical tribute to NHS workers by “Protect Our NHS,” performed at the Bristol Royal Infirmary.
This past summer the “People’s March for the NHS,” marched 250 miles from Jarrow to Trafalgar Square, and I was so proud to join them on the last ten miles. I loved shouting these kind and passionate words, “Whose NHS? YOUR NHS! Whose NHS? MY NHS!l Whose NHS? OUR NHS!” with thousands of other marchers.
In the Islington TribuneLeo Garib wrote about what he witnessed on the march (some of which I saw, too):
In Edmonton, Tottenham, and Stoke Newington people stopped to cheer, mums held up babies sporting “Born in the NHS” badges, buses and cars honked in support…they began pressing beautiful bouquets of flowers on the marchers as they passed…”It was like a dream, like something from a film,” said a train driver who had been marching since Northampton. “We never imagined this kind of support,” said Joanna Adams (one of the “Darlo Mums” organizers). “I suppose we were speaking for millions of people who love the NHS and want to stop its privatization. But this was bigger and more emotional than we ever imagined.”
And it will be bigger still. As Eli Siegel explained in 1970: “Ethics is a force, like electricity, steam, the atom—and will have its way…The world is saying: We don’t want ill will to hurt and poison our lives any more …. That sense of justice, which is a name for good will, is tremendously powerful…”The NHS represents that good will, and I passionately want it to prevail. I am sure, personally and gratefully, that the study of Aesthetic Realism can help have this come to be.