By Yuri Prasad
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Furious NHS workers push for pay strikes

This article is over 1 years, 5 months old
Thousands of nurses could strike for better pay and have vowed to defend the NHS from complete destruction
Issue 2829
Workers marching in London 2021 including NHS nurses and doctors holding placards which read Its time to pay nursing staff fairly by RCN and Migrants make our NHS, Stop scapegoating

NHS workers on the march in 2021 (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Thousands of nurses could soon be heading to picket lines in a furious row over NHS pay—and many other health workers may follow them. The Royal College of Nurses (RCN) concludes its strike ballots in both England and Wales, and Scotland on Wednesday with results expected shortly after.

A big yes vote could see 300,000 nurses join the great pay revolt. That would be a massive boost to those already striking—including postal, BT Group and rail workers. It would also be a lightning bolt directed at the Tories.

The news will come just as Rishi Sunak and his cronies are finalising their plans for millions of pounds of ­spending cuts. We are already seeing the result of a decade of those types of policies in the health service. NHS England alone is short of 46,828 nurses.

This summer the Tories piled on the misery, imposing a pitiful 4 percent pay rise on NHS staff in England and Wales. Keir Starmer’s Labour, for its part, has said it does not back an NHS pay rise above 5 percent and won’t support strikes. Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said, “I think people know that Labour’s hearts is in the right place on this issue, but I’m just going to be really wary about making promises we can’t keep.”

Meanwhile, in Scotland, a revised offer from the ­government in Edinburgh attempts to divide staff by offering a flat rate that improves the offer for the lowest paid but does little or nothing for better paid staff.

Already the Midwives in the Scottish RCM union have rejected the offer and voted to strike. And it’s not just nurses that are likely heading into battle. This week will see the ­biggest health service union, Unison, also readying its troops. Its 350,000 members in England and Wales began their strike ballot last Thursday. 

They include varied roles such as porters, domestics and security guards to nurses, occupational therapists and senior clinicians. Union activist Diana from Homerton hospital in east London has already been out ­campaigning for a huge yes vote.

“We started our ­leafleting campaign early,” she told Socialist Worker.  “And that’s helped us adapt our ­material to take up arguments about striking. In addition to ­telling people to vote, and ­explaining why it’s right to strike, our leaflets now also do ‘myth busting’.

“They take up questions, including how will we ensure patient safety during a strike and can my immigration visa be revoked if I go on strike.” Diana says that her group and other teams of Unison members have already covered the whole hospital once, and they have leafleted A&E and other wards several times.

“The people we’ve talked to on the wards and in the offices are really angry about pay and the general state of the NHS,” she said. “But there are ­contradictions. Some people are really unsure about striking. So we’re going to have to be even more organised to tap into the anger for the ballot.

“This week we’ve got mass leafleting at 7.30 am ­outside the hospital, and other trade unionists are coming to help us. “And we’ve got a big ­meeting where members will be able to come and hear the case for strikes and ask questions.”

The Unison ballot in England and Wales closes on 25 November. If Unison and other ballots are successful, health service strikes could start in either late December or early in the new year.

Don’t let the Scottish government split the unions and block a pay fight

The Scottish government’s divide and rule strategy in the NHS pay fight has been met with anger by health workers’.  Ministers’ revised offer of a flat rate rise of £2,205 means staff on lower grades could see pay rises significantly above the 5 percent originally offered.

Yet those rises would still be below inflation. But some highly skilled staff—whose wages have fallen the most in real terms over the past decade—would barely see improvement at all. 

Leaders of the midwives’ RCM union rightly rejected the deal last week.  The GMB and Unite unions are also urging members to vote yes to strikes.

But the Unison Scotland health committee rushed to suspend their union’s ballot in favour of a digital “consultation” on the new offer starting early this week. Its chair, Wilma Brown, said, “NHS staff are working through two crises—an NHS crisis and a cost of living crisis.

“This offer will go some way to helping them with the latter. But we have a huge amount of work to do to get our NHS to be world class again, irrespective of the outcome of this consultation.” Those words leave open the possibility that Unison leaders will make not recommend members reject the new offer in the consultation.

That in itself would be a signal that the leadership has given up the fight for an above-inflation deal. The Scottish government hopes that if Unison withdraws from the fight, other unions will follow leaving only a minority to strike alone. Health union activists must fight to ensure that plan comes unstuck.

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