From a fairly small organisation concentrated in the 'Cinderella' psychiatric and mental handicap hospitals, COHSE has grown to encompass people working throughout the health care sector.
At the same time, it has become more political, more conscious of the need to reflect the concerns of its over-whelmingly female membership and more anxious to ensure that services are targeted at every union member.
With a sound financial base, the ability to speak directly to members and activists and an enviable range of industrial, professional and political services, COHSE has become an organisation capable of taking proactive decisions, anticipating and shaping developments instead of simply reacting.
It is that ability which led COHSE this year to enter talks
with NUPE and NALGO on the creation of a new public services union.
Over the next few years, the arena in which we organise will change out of all recognition. The shift from hospital to community care is already breaking up the large institutions. Divisions between the NHS, social services, the voluntary and the private sectors are blurring.
National pay bargaining is gradually being devolved. And the demands placed on unions by a changing workforce are shifting in emphasis as large numbers of women re-enter the workforce and part-time jobs increase.
All of this demands an imaginative response. We need a new union capable of encompassing all those working in the public services and of responding to their disparate needs, quickly, efficiently and without bureaucratic delay.
We envisage a union in which the basic local building block, the branch, can be tailored to meet the specific needs of a workplace as small as a group home and as large as a district general hospital.
This means abandoning some of our 'hallowed' institutions, such as the compulsory monthly branch meeting,in favour of a less formal organisation which-recognises that diversity of needs and revolves around a workplace 'patch' with union representatives responsible to the branch for their own patch.
We see regions developing a new facilitating role as
both a resource and an administrative centre, but making sure there is no bureaucratic block in the union decision-making structure.
There should be a national tier of perhaps four key
groups, of which health and personal social services
would be one, with their own autonomous policy-making powers and the ability to direct their own finances. There should be professional advisory panels and consultative conferences for groups such as nurses, ambulance personnel and social workers, and new ways of developing policies through working parties and even ballots.
We also want to see a top tier encompassing all mem-
bers and providing central services, holding the membership register and with overall responsibility for the finances and resources of the union.
Having seen other unions grow large and get things wrong, we should learn from their mistakes. We mustavoid an overwhelming bureaucracy in which no decisions can ever be made and initiative is stifled. We must avoid competing power blocks in which regions and trade groups struggle for supremacy to the detriment of the whole union. And we must avoid simply lumping in all the old practices and structures of all three unions.
In short, there cannot and must not simply be a larger version of COHSE, NUPE or NALGO; we need a new union.