Political Women (6) Karen Reissmann
Socialist, nurse, woman, fighter against injustice………..
Karen has been involved in politics from the age of 16. She is a shop steward and member of Unison Executive. She was not from a political family but…
Neither of my parents were active politically. We did talk about the world we lived in. Mum was a steward in the Royal College of Nursing when it was changing from a professional organisation to a trade union. But she was strongly anti-striking as a principle. She had a sense of justice, that you should stand up and do something and not turn a blind eye to injustice.
She started on her political life in 1975, aged 16, when she joined the National Union of School Students:
It was a time when there were cuts in education and we were fighting for students to have a voice in the school system.
Her parents were not happy about her activity:
They were worried about me being political and that it would lead me into trouble
Karen moved to Manchester to study mathematics at the University and became involved in the students union. In 1979 she joined the Labour Party as a result of Thatcher coming to power
I felt that she had got to power because Labour were not electable and I wanted to change that. There was a huge left wing in the party then and the campaign for Tony Benn as deputy leader showed how close we were to making that change.
But Tony Benn failed to get elected by a whisker and by the 1980s her local left wing Labour council was voting through a series of cuts.
I left the Labour Party because I didn’t campaign for leftwingers to push through cuts. I felt the Labour Party wasn’t prioritising working class people and their needs but their own electoral future.
Karen gave up her university course and trained as a nurse. Within six weeks of starting in the job as a student nurse she was elected a shop steward. Her career as a nurse runs alongside her own politics:
I do like being a nurse, being able to help people and for them to help themselves and see peoples’ lives improve. I find it hard to ignore the blocks that stop people being mentally well, including money. For me the ability to link what you do for a living and fight back against racism and sexism at work is part of fighting against injustice in society.”
She sees the link between patients’ rights and the rights of people generally. For Karen it is not just a question of being a trade unionist, but being a political trade unionist. Her branch of Unison Mental Health Manchester has been at the forefront of working closely with service users;
There is a political edge to the branch. Unlike other branches, we have built links with the user and , had joint campaigns over issues such as free bus passes for patients. Some unions have fought on issues such as safeguarding staff, rather than seeing the issue of safety as one for staff and patients.
In 1988 she joined the Socialist Workers Party and is still a member.
I have stayed in the SWP because I think it is hard to be an individual in a world that is pulling so much to the right. The SWP does have an analysis of what is happening in the world, and it builds alliances to do things in an organised way.
Karen is aware that many people are disillusioned with the Left and that, in particular, many young people are not involved in any politics:
My response is to ask young people, are you happy with the world, and then discuss how things really change. Society changes when people stand up and fight for things. It is not about who you elect to Parliament. After the Second World War we got a welfare state, not because we elected a Labour Government, but a product of the mood of the people, a response to the 30s and t the fact that people did want a better world. In 1951 the Tory Government came to power but kept the NHS because they did not dare try and take it away. Now they think they can take it away
In 2007 Karen, who was then branch chair, was sacked by Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust. This was because she spoke out against cuts and privatisation. Around 700 workers at the trust struck for 14 days in Karen’s defence, while 150 community mental health workers took several weeks of all-out strike action to demand that Karen be reinstated to her job. Her campaign included union members and user groups. Karen’s case went to Employment Tribunal and, although she did not get her job back, her campaign helped bring attacks on freedom of speech for trade unionists to national prominence.
Her belief in building alliances with union members, patients and the wider community is at the heart of Karen’s politics.
Unions need to look outward. There are arguments within the unions about challenging the cuts agenda. Some centre around waiting for a Labour Government but there is a real difference between full time officer and ground level union activists. Fulltimers do not want to upset the capitalist system but the advantage of being political means that we can make alliances at a local level to challenge the cuts.
The Con Dem government are now trying to make £20 billion cuts in the NHS. They want to reduce the number of hospitals in Greater Manchester from 12 to 5. Karen believes that the public will not accept this level of cuts;
We need a mixture of union and community campaigns. I believe the public will respond and be horrified at what is an unravelling of the NHS. The closure of hospitals and services at this level will mean that the service will be replaced by me and you.
Karen is positive about the future, although scared about her own future as a health worker. Her politics give her hope for the future, though. And her message to young women?
The world is scary, but more so when we do not do anything. I have always tried to fight back and I don’t see any other way of getting a better world unless we do so. Fighting back, can change you, it can give you confidence and for me being in the SWP has meant that I feel I can make a difference.