Socialist Worker

Do health workers have the power to hit the bosses?

Not all workers are exploited in the same way—but capitalism still needs their work, and that gives them power to hit back

Issue No. 2435

NHS workers on strike last year

NHS workers on strike last year (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Hundreds of thousands of health workers are set to walk out once again in new NHS strikes this month.

Unlike workers in a car plant or factory, they don’t produce commodities that bosses make profit out of. 

When car workers strike it’s clear what economic power they have—cars stop being produced and the bosses’ profits are hit. 

Health workers went into the NHS because they want to help people.

They don’t want to see their patients suffer, so they don’t all walk out and leave them completely untended.

But does that mean they don’t have the same power to take on their bosses? 

Karl Marx explained that exploitation is the process where bosses steal some of the value workers produce. 

It’s not just the poorest who are exploited—it’s everyone who works for a wage.


Bosses pay workers for their capacity to work, their “labour power”. But the wages don’t reflect the full value the workers created. 

The difference is the “surplus value” that bosses keep—and this is the basis for profit. 

What workers are paid does not match the specific work they do. It depends more on the cost of keeping them alive and able to work.

But it’s contested, and ultimately depends on the balance of class forces in a workplace and wider society.

Whether workers are in retreat or winning shapes whether they live on poverty pay or can afford the occasional holiday or meal out. 

Public service workers such as nurses and teachers are vital to the functioning of modern capitalism. 

Bosses need workers who are skilled, educated and in good health.

So workers who make this possible in schools and hospitals are also creating value, indirectly.

Health workers are part of the working class.

Their industrial weight is not measured in how hard they can hit bosses’ profits. But their strikes still have an immense impact. 

Health workers will provide emergency cover during strikes. Managers normally want to be the ones organising this.

But health workers can insist on doing it themselves, which gives them more control over the strike—and their labour.

The big, strong picket lines of past NHS strikes helped build the action and inspired solidarity from other workers.

NHS workers have also resisted by occupying hospitals in the past.  

The recent strikes of NHS workers have been hugely popular. People can see that NHS workers are not just fighting for their own wages.

They’re fighting to defend a crucial public service that millions depend on.


Millions of working class people are sick of austerity. And they know the Tories want to cut and privatise the NHS.

NHS workers going on strike raises all sorts of questions about fighting the Tories, and about our society. 

This sort of mass support means that successful NHS strikes can cause an immense political crisis that can force the Tories to retreat. 

They have the power to win. 

Think what it would mean if health workers bust open the Tories’ pay freeze.

It would lift the confidence of workers and campaigners in the public and private sector who are struggling to survive in Tory Britain. 

It could open the gates to other victories by millions of other workers too.

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