A storm of anger hit the Tories after they called for a paltry 1 percent pay rise for NHS workers—and it could lead to strikes.
The government deliberately timed its message to go out last Thursday, a day after the chancellor’s budget speech, in the hope it wouldn’t be noticed. And, when asked, ministers told health workers they “should be grateful” they got anything at all.
NHS staff are furious.
“What a kick in the teeth for everyone who has worked so hard through the pandemic,” a London paramedic and GMB union member told Socialist Worker.
“The Tories have just confirmed what we already knew—that they really don’t care at all about the NHS or the people who work day and night to keep it going.
“So many of my colleagues have had Covid and some have been very unwell for a long time. Many still haven’t recovered. And we’ve seen colleagues die.
“We all fear taking the virus home to our own families. We mostly work 12-hour shifts and often they go on longer than that. We struggle to get any decent rest or to eat and drink properly.
“And 1 percent is all they think we are worth? Well, they’ll see how much we are actually worth if we all go on strike.”
That mood was reflected in an online rally of the nurses’ RCN union
Leaders of the union announced that they had already allocated
£35 million to a strike fund. They said they were “fully prepared” to take action to win their demand of a 12.5 percent pay rise.
Chair of the RCN Dave Dawes said the Tories’ 1 percent pay offer was a “political choice”. He pointed to the budget which had handed the bosses £25 billion in a “super deduction fund” to show that more money was available.
Dawes repeatedly pointed out that RCN nurses struck in Northern Ireland last year and that the whole union was ready to do so again.
Unison, the biggest health service union, has also told its members that a pay strike is a possibility. It is asking its activists to get membership records up to date in case of a ballot in the summer.
It announced plans for a “mass slow handclap” on people’s doorsteps and balconies on Thursday of this week at 8pm. Many activists urged supporters to stretch the initiative in imaginative ways.
Already some are planning small clapping protests outside hospitals, and others are organising workplace action.
Postal workers in north London told Socialist Worker they are planning to pause work to take mass selfies with posters in support of NHS workers.
The scale of anger at the government reflects just how weak it is.
Strikes across the NHS would be incredibly popular and could galvanise the millions of other public sector workers whose pay has been frozen.
A united fight would rock the Tories to their core.
‘We need to make the possibility of a strike real in every workplace’
So far, all I hear from colleagues and friends everywhere is, “We’ve had enough and we’ve got to strike.”
The important question for all health worker activists now is, how do we sustain this mood over the at least few months before any strike ballot will start?
We know that the NHS Pay Review body will be collecting evidence until the end of April. It will then make a recommendation, which the government will either accept or change.
So we’ll be well into spring before unions can move into a formal dispute with the employers.
We need to make the possibility of a strike feel real in every NHS workplace. That means we need to talk to all our colleagues and spread the idea.
We should launch union recruitment campaigns, telling the people we work with that action is coming.
And existing members need to be reminded that we need to check their details so that a ballot will be legal. Even these basic steps will start to create an atmosphere for a fight back.
A lot of the media focus on NHS pay has been on nurses. But we need to make sure that every worker is involved in this fight.
Often the lowest paid are forgotten about—we can’t afford for that to happen this time around. I think we should consider hospital-wide pay campaigns that involve people from all unions and every type of NHS job.
We can use these to distribute leaflets and newsletters, and take up specific arguments. Stickers and badges should be everywhere.
We need a really good social media presence in every Trust. Photos and videos of people holding placards and saying they are ready to strike are really good.
Every serious activist knows that a strike is the only way we are going to get the pay rise we deserve.
But to get there we are going to have to keep up massive pressure on our own unions, who may well be happy to settle for a slightly improved offer from the Tories.
This is going to be a long fight and we will have to be creative if we’re going to win it.
Jordan Rivera, member of the Unison union health executive (in a personal capacity)
‘We can strike safely—for both staff and patients’
Most of my colleagues really back the idea of going on strike. But there are some who fear the impact on patients, and worry about whether it can be done safely.
Many younger staff have never been on strike, or seen how hospitals can function during a dispute.
The most important thing to say is that our fight is for ourselves, but is also for our patients. At the moment many hospital wards have so few staff that they are already unsafe.
We are short of tens of thousands of nurses and other vital staff, and a key reason for that is low pay.
If we beat the government and improve our wages, the NHS will attract more workers and improve care.
It is possible to strike, even under the present dangerous conditions, while maintaining good cover for patients.
In a normal strike, the aim of the union is to stop production but that’s not what happens in a hospital.
First, the union will agree with Trust bosses an appropriate minimum level of staff cover for each ward.
That’s designed to ensure there are enough people to deal with routine work.
During the pandemic we have seen that management can, when it suits them, find clinical staff from research and other areas to help run wards.
They will have to do so again during any industrial action.
Second, being on strike does not mean vital staff are not available for work in case of emergency.
We will be on picket lines outside our hospitals and are easily contactable if serious issues arise.
But we, as a union, will collectively decide how to respond.
The only way for us to truly protect our patients and the health service we all cherish is to fight for it—and that means going on strike.
Janet Maiden, nurse and University College London Hospitals Unison branch chair (personal capacity)
Other workers must fight too
More than 2.6 million public sector workers have been told their pay will be “frozen” for at least the next year.
That will mean an effective pay cut with many bills and council tax set to rise sharply.
Many of those affected will have played a vital role as “key workers” during the pandemic.
They are still being pressured to work ever harder to cover for colleagues who are sick or self-isolating.
Britain’s biggest teachers’ union has warned it was not ruling out strikes in response.
Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the NEU, said “members’ focus right now” is on the reopening of schools. But when asked if he would rule out strike action on pay, he told Times Radio, “I wouldn’t rule it out, I’m not ruling it in.”
Chancellor Rishi Sunak has tried to divide public and private sector workers by saying those employed by the state are “privileged”. But public sector pay cuts drive help drive down the pay of all workers.
Unions should come together to launch a united fight against the pay freeze.
Dorries’ lies hide hypocrisy
Tory minister Nadine Dorries and right wing commentators have been quick to say that an average nurse earns “around £34,000 a year”.
But the overwhelming majority of nurses are in “band 5”. Pay starts at just £24,907 and rises to a maximum of £30,615 after seven or more years in the job.
Many thousands of vital NHS workers earn even less, with some nursing assistants paid just £1,348 a month.
No such worries for Dorries.
In 2013, it was reported that she used up to £44,999 a year of public money to employ her daughter to do “constituency work” for her.