Essex nurse Leah had “never been involved in protest, organising marches or anything like it”. She’s now one of the thousands of health workers leading a revolt over pay.
Workers are furious at Tory ministers’ refusal to give them a pay rise after they were clapped and praised as key workers during coronavirus.
Over 1,500 marched on Downing Street from St Thomas’ Hospital last Wednesday. And they’ve organised protests in towns and cities across Britain for this Saturday, 8 August.
“I didn’t want to sit on my backside and do nothing, especially after everything that’s happened with the coronavirus crisis,” Leah told Socialist Worker. “It’s highlighted the importance of the NHS and NHS workers—and there was lots of recognition like clapping and calling us heroes.
“It’s very disappointing to have no pay rise. I’ve continued to work throughout, and my twins continued to go to school everyday—it would be nice to be recognised.” The Tory government’s pay insult has tapped into a deeper anger. Workers have faced more than a decade of stagnating pay, rocketing workloads, budget cuts and privatisation.
And then came coronavirus, the lack of PPE protective kit and the deaths of over 500 of their colleagues.
With neither union leaders nor the Labour Party leading any kind of resistance to the Tories over any of this, workers and their supporters have taken to organizing some themselves.
People feel ignored—it’s an utter stab in the back.Matt, nurse in Chesterfield
So many of the health workers at the forefront of the revolt have never been on a protest or picket line before and some aren’t in a union.
In Chesterfield, nurse Matt, who has organised a march for 8 August, says “It’s just phenomenal” how “it’s gone off like a rocket.”
“I’m not really into politics to be honest, but after the chancellor released the pay rises there was a fire in my belly,” he told Socialist Worker. “I thought there must be a mistake that we were not included. People feel ignored—it’s an utter stab in the back.”
Melanie, a nurse who is organising the protest in Glasgow, says health workers are “always scared to say what we think.”
“But it’s time we did—we have to send a clear message,” she told Socialist Worker. “The message is, we have had enough.”
Boris Johnson, chancellor Rishi Sunak, health secretary Matt Hancock and other ministers joined the Claps for Carers on Thursdays. They praised NHS workers as heroes and key workers.
Workers who were routinely dismissed by politicians and pundits as “low skilled” were shown to be essential to running society.
The crisis has shown that, far from there being no “magic money tree” to fund public services, there’s plenty of money in society. It’s just in the wrong hands.
Now millions of people don’t want to go back to the “business as usual” of low pay, cuts, declining living standards and a race to the bottom.
People have bent over backwards, our lives have been on the line, our families’ lives have been on the lineKim, community nurse
Saoirse, a nurse who has organised the protest in Bristol, told Socialist Worker, “There’s a recognition now that unskilled isn’t a thing—underpaid is a thing.
“We have been squeezed in every direction, it’s about making sure we come together as one voice as the NHS.
“People focus very much on nurses, who haven’t been given a pay rise. Porters, cleaners and domestics, people who work in labs and physios, none of these people have been recognised despite risking their lives.”
Saoirse is another health worker who has thrown herself into organising around pay. “I organised a very small protest against the Iraq War in my Somerset town when I was 16,” she said.
“And I was quite involved with the National Union of Students when I was doing my first degree, but since then not really done anything.”
But after seeing “there wasn’t an action in Bristol, I thought let’s do one and jumped into it with both feet”.
The sense of betrayal is felt acutely by many health workers, who have bee
Kim is a community nurse who has set up a pay protest in Plymouth, the first ever one she’s been part of organising. “We have all worked so hard over Covid-19,” she told Socialist Worker.
“People have bent over backwards, our lives have been on the line, our families’ lives have been on the line.
“We were finding ourselves in the limelight, being appreciated, and seeing Boris stood on the front steps clapping.
“And then seeing him say we’re not getting a pay rise—it’s really demoralising.”
Many health workers have stayed away from their families in hotels to help contain the spread of the virus. Laura, a nurse who has organised a protest in Liverpool, says “people struggled” through the coronavirus crisis.
“At the start of it, people were very scared,” she told Socialist Worker. “People were having to stay in hotel rooms, without even proper cooking facilities. Lots of people have had to pay extra for childcare, and to stay elsewhere was being taken out of a wage that people already struggle to live on.”
She added, “And what have we got for it? A second wave is coming—how can we get through the next one?”
Sister Kimberly, a nurse in Wigan who’s organised a march in Manchester, says workers “feel we’ve been through the worst experience within nursing” because of the pandemic.
“Then to get no recognition is like a slap in the face,” she told Socialist Worker. “We have a lot of young single parents especially that are really struggling, they use food banks and rely on their family to survive.”
Ministers argue that the NHS is in the middle of a three-year pay deal, amounting to 6.5 percent. But the pay deal was mis-sold by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and Unison union leaderships in 2018. Workers were led to believe that they would receive more money in their pay packets than they did.
And the deal came on the back of a ten-year pay freeze under Labour and Tory governments, which overall has led to a 20 percent pay cut in real terms.
Kimberly explained, “The official figure for the last ten years is 20 percent down if you look at the cost of living increases.
“There was a pay deal in 2018, but what you had depended on pay banding and people who had put the years in didn’t get anything.”
We’ve been clapped, but that’s not going to get people out of poverty.Laura, from Liverpool
Kim says “It’s difficult enough being a single mum” and low pay makes life harder. “It’s impossible to find somewhere to live,” she explained.
“It’s a pretty sad state at the age of 41, and it’s the same for a lot of people I work with.”
She added, “My 12 year old boy didn’t want to go school as a key worker’s son because he didn’t have any friends going in. I want to reward him for being so mature staying at home, but I can’t take him out, I can’t buy anything.”
Laura from Liverpool adds that poverty pay affects patient care too, as workers are forced to leave the health service. “We’ve got over 44,000 nursing vacancies in England alone,” she said. “People are having to do extra shifts.
“They are overworked and overtired, so demoralised and exhausted. There is no morale and now it’s just like being slapped in the face at the end.
“We’ve been clapped, but that’s not going to get people out of poverty. How can you preserve patient safety when you’re struggling yourself?”
The pay revolt shows how workers’ struggles can suddenly burst forth outside the official channels, whether political parties or trade unions.
In some parts of the country, workers involved in the pay revolt have learnt from the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. It showed the power of putting thousands of people onto the streets to challenge injustice. Care worker Laura has organised the protest in Doncaster, South Yorkshire.
“I’ve done this slightly on the back of the BLM protests,” she explained to Socialist Worker, “Doncaster is relatively small and we can be left behind.
“But we staged a brilliant BLM protest. It made me really proud of Doncaster and to think, ‘We can do it over pay too’.”
At the march in London, workers knelt in support of Black Lives Matter. Speakers highlighted how poverty and racism meant that black and Asian health workers disproportionately died of Covid-19. Janet, a nurse from UCH hospital in central London, said that the “fight against low pay is part of the fight against institutional racism”.
In Bristol Saoirse said, “We want to amplify voices of people who don’t usually get to speak like porters and health care assistants.
“We’ve worked with the BLM movement in Bristol to make sure the Black and Asian perspective is included.”
She added, “We’re getting a lot of support from unions, but it’s cross party, cross union thing and transcends factions.
“None of the unions will speak on behalf of the union.”
We want to amplify voices of people who don’t usually get to speak like porters and health care assistantsSaoirse, nurse in Bristol
The union leaders have been missing in action during the coronavirus crisis—and for many years before. They haven’t led a serious fight over pay, cuts or privatisation.
And they dragged their feet over raising concerns about PPE, fearing they would lose a seat at a table with government ministers.
“Social partnership” has failed. Union leaders need to be pushed to back this revolt, but those fighting now cannot rely on those at the top of the unions.
On Whitehall, organiser Dave Carr said it’s time to “build the biggest strike in the NHS” to huge cheers. And Carr addressed the Unison, GMB and Unite union leaderships, saying, “We pay your wages, now fight for ours.”
The crowd broke into chants of, “The workers united will never be defeated.”
Every trade unionist, health campaigner and socialist should throw themselves into supporting the protests on 8 August.
A win for the health workers would be a win for all workers. It would give other groups confidence to take up the fight against low pay and the Tories’ and bosses’ attempts to make ordinary people pay for the coronavirus crisis.