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Public sector pay cap drives workers out of health service—time to fight back

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Millions are worse off after the Tories’ latest ‘slap in the face’ to the people who keep our public services going. Activists told Alistair Farrow it’s time to strike against the pay cap
Issue 2548
Health workers on strike in 2014. It was the first national pay strike in health for 32 years
Health workers on strike in 2014. It was the first national pay strike in health for 32 years (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Millions of workers are set to lose tens of thousands of pounds after the government held their wages below inflation again.

Some public sector workers were handed a miserly 1 percent pay rise by the government last Tuesday. With inflation currently at 2.3 percent, this an effective pay cut.

More than £4.3 billion has been cut from NHS staff wages between 2010 and 2016 as a result of the Tory pay cap of 1 percent imposed until 2020.

That means workers are set to lose tens of thousands over the period 2010 to 2020, unless they fight back.

One Unison union health activist told Socialist Worker, “We can’t go on as we are. Year on year pay is going down.”

Meanwhile, Labour and the trade union leadership have offered little real resistance as people suffer.


The latest pay cuts won’t come as a surprise for workers though, shocking as they are. Pay growth has largely been below inflation since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008.

New Office for National Statistics figures show the pay freeze has meant that average public sector pay dropped below private sector pay for 11 of the last 12 months.

No wonder workers are now leaving the health service at record levels, although this has been offset by those joining.

Huge march for our NHS shows the fury against the Tories
Huge march for our NHS shows the fury against the Tories
  Read More

Figures from the Public Accounts Committee show that the proportion of nurses leaving their job increased from 6.8 percent in the period 2010 to 2011 to 9.2 percent in the period 2014 to 2015.

NHS staff left at a rate of 16 percent last year, a 4 percent increase between 2011 and 2016.

Wages have almost been at a standstill for years while the cost of living has been shooting up.

One nurse, Elin, told Socialist Worker, “The job’s emotionally and physically draining but you put up with that because you feel you’re making a difference. It’s not just about the pay, it’s about conditions as well.”


The pay freeze will make this worse. Elin said, “The pay freeze will affect the nursing profession as a whole because it will put people off from training. It’s not going to be worth doing a nursing degree.”

Junior doctor Yannis Gourtsoyannis agreed. “This latest pay freeze is yet another attack on the NHS,” he said.

“It shows how little regard this government has for the people who work in hospitals. Squeezing the workforce is part and parcel of the government’s privatisation agenda.

“They want to undermine the NHS to the point that it’s ripened up for further selloffs.Tuesday’s announcement is just another slap in the face.”

The Unison activist said, “The best response would be national action. The junior doctors’ dispute revealed that any sort of fightback can be very popular.

“I’ve been pushing for national action inside Unison. Now the 1 percent pay freeze has been confirmed I will be raising it again.

“There have been proposals for each of Unison’s 12 regions to launch a dispute at hospitals in their area over regrading. It could be used as a bridge towards the national dispute we need.”

Pay boards do Tories’ dirty work

The organisations which set public sector pay, Pay Review Bodies (PRBs), claim to be independent.

But they are under the government’s Office for Manpower Economics, and constrained by the 1 percent pay cap set by the government.

Christine McAnea, head of health at the Unison union, said this “tied the PRB’s hands”.

“As the PRB itself admits, it can no longer prevent health employees’ pay falling way behind wages in almost every part of the economy,” she said.

The PRBs were set up in 1971 as a means of undermining collective bargaining at a time of mass strikes.

By 2005 they set the pay of 26 percent of public sector workers.Today that has grown to 45 percent—some 2.5 million people.

Strike together: workers showed their power to beat the Tories in 2011 but union leaders failed the test

Strike together: workers showed their power to beat the Tories in 2011 but union leaders failed the test (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Bring back the fightback

In 2011 a dispute over public sector pensions rocked the Tory and Lib Dem coalition government.

On 30 November 2011 2.5 million workers went on strike against vicious pension cuts which were to rob them of £10 billion annually.

The dispute continued into 2012, but was sold out by union leaders who made a deal with the coalition.

The TUC and then-general secretary Brendan Barber—now a lord—wound down the dispute rather than take up the fight.

The defeat over pensions gave the Tories confidence. Workers are still paying the price of that betrayal today.

Workers must organise within their unions and workplaces to be strong militant organisations that can take the lead when union leaders falter.

Union leaders must be pressured into calling national strikes to fight back over Tory austerity.

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