The prospect of a strike by hundreds of thousands of health workers took a step forwards last week.
Representatives of doctors, nurses, midwives, administrators and cleaners gathered at the London headquarters of the Unison union to discuss united action to defend their pensions.
They anticipate that negotiations with the government will fail and that their members will face the prospect of increased contributions, later retirement and reduced benefits.
Unison’s Christina McAnea said, “There has never been full-scale industrial action in the health service.
“This is the first time all the groups have come together to talk about it.
“Industrial action in the NHS could be massive… it almost feels inevitable.”
Anger is sweeping the health service as workers discover that Tory proposals will force them to work into their mid-60s—long after many had hoped to retire.
Planned cuts to pension payouts mean that many who had hoped to retire early at 60 with reduced benefits can no longer afford the option.
They now fear for their health if they must continue working long shifts, both day and night, in order to make ends meet.
“Lots of highly skilled workers, like nurses and paramedics, know that they will not be able to do their jobs when they’re in their 60s.” says Karen Reissmann, a psychiatric nurse from Manchester who sits on Unison’s national executive.
“Their roles are just too physically demanding. Has anyone in the government thought about what trying to lift a heavy patient into a bed will be like for someone who is 65 years old?
“And working well into your 60s is not just bad for us workers, it’s bad for patients too. It will affect the standard of care we can offer.”
Karen is among many
longstanding union activists who have been running canteen stalls and union meetings on the issue.
She says that the anger among nurses is greater than anything she has seen for years.
“We have to put the issue of pensions in the context of all the other attacks on public services,” she says.
“This is not just about health workers trying to protect their own futures. It’s part of the fight to defend the welfare state as a whole.”
Despite union leaders publicly preparing their members for action, some activists are also sounding a note of warning.
They fear that more conservative “professional” associations that met with Unison will seek to limit disruption caused by strikes.
Even the Unite union assistant general secretary, Gail Cartmail, said that they needed to use more strategic industrial action, claiming that the days of mass strike action were over.
The government, however, is in no mood to listen to subtle methods.
George Osborne has promised the international bankers that Britain will be taking a big dose of his austerity medicine.
He is hoping for massive cuts in pensions—and, with around a million NHS workers paying into a scheme, the health service is one of Osborne’s prime targets.
The best way to defend pensions is for health workers to join with the teachers, lecturers and civil service workers who have already struck against the Tories’ plans.
We need the most vigorous action on a massive scale to put an end to Osborne’s dreams.