The government’s determination to make more than a million workers in the NHS accept below inflation pay rises for the next three years met a stormy response at the Unison union’s annual health conference in Manchester this week.
The deal offers workers just 2.75 percent in year one, 2.4 percent in year two and 2.25 percent in year three.
Coming at a time of sharply rising prices, with the retail price index (RPI) measure of inflation at 4.1 percent, the prospect of effective pay cuts for three years was far too much to bear for many delegates.
Discussion of the offer on Unison’s health executive led to a deadlocked vote and it was not clear as Socialist Worker went to press whether the anger of delegates would translate into a vote to reject the offer at the conference.
Nevertheless, there was sharp criticism for Unison leaders who had earlier greeted the announcement of the offer with enthusiasm.
Unison’s chief negotiator Mike Jackson somewhat unenthusiastically told the conference that he believed the three year package to be the “best that could be achieved through negotiation”, and that only “sustained and effective industrial action” could force the government to offer more.
Jackson warned that if the offer was rejected in favour of a return to yearly bargaining, it was likely that the government would reduce its offer for year one, or implement it in stages.
He added that the government was predicting that inflation would fall.
In response to the growing mood among delegates to reject the offer, the union leadership demanded that those against prove they could win their members to a long and protracted strike.
Lillian Macer, chair of the health executive, spoke for a leadership backed motion which sought to ballot members on the deal without a recommendation:
“Conference is faced with a difficult choice over pay. Tens of thousands of our lowest paid members will benefit from this deal. But we recognise that the offer is below inflation as measured by RPI.
“The deal does however offer stability and certainty about pay for the next three years.
“We need to seriously assess whether our members will take industrial action if we reject this deal.
“If we pass this motion we will allow our branches and our members to make their own minds up.”
Speakers who sought backing for the health executive’s motion did not attempt to present the deal as good, but instead repeated that they wanted members to decide in a ballot as to whether to accept or reject the deal.
In contrast many activists were buoyed by the prospect of up to 500,000 workers taking strike action over the governments pay limits on 24 April.
Speaking against the three year deal, Diana Swingler from Homerton hospital Unison said, “The average family will need £1,500 a year more just to stand still. Instead of that we are faced with a three-year pay cut.
“Some people say there is no mood among our members for a fight over this. That is not true.
“We organised a general meeting at my hospital. The first to speak was a low paid domestic. She said that this offer is an insult and was shortly after elected to be a new shop steward.
“Any action we take will be a lightning rod for all those who want to defend the NHS and offers us the chance to link up with thousands of other public sector workers who are taking strike action this month.”
The scale of the anger over pay took Unison’s leadership by surprise and is a sign that the growing radicalisation among health workers is shifting this traditionally moderate section of the union.
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