The prospect of the first mass national industrial action in the NHS for almost 20 years took a big step forward last week as the Unison union agreed to ballot its members over pay.
While inflation surges towards 5 percent, the government has told tens of thousands of nurses and other clinical workers that they will receive a paltry 1.9 percent pay “rise”.
The Pay Review Body (PRB) that suggests nurses’ pay rates to the government and employers had recommended an increase of just 2.5 percent.
But the government has decided that workers in England and Wales should have an even lower settlement by implementing the offer in two stages.
Other workers in the health service, including porters, cleaners and domestics, will have to wait until Friday 27 April to hear of their proposed increase, which is expected to be the same 1.9 percent as nurses.
There is a real possibility that a fight over pay in the NHS could involve nurses, therapists, clerical workers, cleaners, porters and many others.
Unison’s health executive last week reported massive anger against the PRB’s recommendation and the government’s offer.
Following the meeting Karen Jennings, Unison’s head of health, said, “We are left with little choice but to start gearing up for action.
“The mood of our members is one of deep disappointment, frustration and anger.”
The executive decided to recommend a ballot for action short of a strike against the staging of the pay award. This proposal will go to the Unison health conference, which begins on 22 April.
The decision to mount a serious pay campaign will give activists a chance to take the argument over how to win a decent pay rise to members in every hospital and NHS workplace.
In the process the union can spread into new areas and gain members in parts of the NHS where previously it was weak.
The ballot will also be a chance to generate a mood for a fight among workers who have seen large scales job losses and closures in recent years.
Many on the executive were disappointed that the proposed ballot would be for action short of a strike, and for the implementation of the 2.5 percent PRB recommendation in full.
They wanted a fight to secure a pay increase that at least matches inflation.
There is, however, an important opportunity to challenge the nature of the ballot at the Unison health conference.
Karen Reissmann, a health executive member from Manchester community and mental health Unison, is urging activists to ensure that the health conference is flooded with emergency resolutions.
These should call for a campaign to win a 5 percent rise, with strike action as an option on the ballot paper.
Mark Ladbrooke, a health executive member from Oxford, told Socialist Worker that, “in the south eastern region of Unison every branch that consulted its members reports overwhelming opposition to the pay offer.
“In Oxfordshire there was a 70 percent vote for a strike.
“There has been no national strike action in the NHS for almost 20 years.
“Activists need to think hard about what we are going to do to make this work.
“Branches need to get officers and stewards to every ward and workplace to explain to members and non-members what is happening.
“We need to say that, during the strike, Unison will ensure basic emergency cover is provided.”
The prospect of a battle over pay in the NHS means that health workers have even more reason to join in the TUC’s public sector day of action on 1 May.
On that day 250,000 civil service workers in the PCS civil service workers’ union will strike.
Pat McManus, the Unison branch chair at Northwick Park and Central Middlesex hospitals in London, told Socialist Worker that cleaners and auxiliary staff in his branch are planning a lunchtime protest on 1 May.
Pat said, “The auxiliaries who work for ISS Mediclean are fighting for the same pay as workers on the same grade who work directly for the NHS.
“We chose 1 May for our protest because we know that other public sector workers will be fighting alongside us on that day.
“If we all stand together we can show the government that they are going to have a fight on their hands.”
October is month for national health protest
The Unison union’s health executive also heard that Unison have agreed a national demonstration in defence of the NHS at the start of the new parliamentary session in October.
The long overdue protest was originally called by last year’s Unison health conference and was endorsed by the health executive earlier this year.
It will be a tremendous opportunity to unite local NHS campaigns against closures with health workers who are fighting for jobs and pay.