By Yuri Prasad
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Nurses, midwives and ambulance workers set to launch NHS pay fights

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Union activist describes an ‘electric’ atmosphere over new strike ballots over NHS pay
Issue 2826
Three nurses lead a march about NHS pay over Westminster bridge. They hold aloft RCN union placards that read it's time to pay nursing staff fairly

Nurses in the RCN union marching last year over NHS pay (Picture: Guy Smallman)

There could soon be picket lines at hospitals across Britain as hundreds of thousands of nurses have started a strike ballot over terrible pay.

A yes vote in the NHS would elevate the growing pay fight—led now by post, rail and telecom workers—to a wholly new level. More than 300,000 members of the RCN union in England, Wales and Scotland started their ballot on Thursday last week.

The ballot runs until 2 November. Midlands nurse and union activist Matt Tacey told Socialist Worker the mood in hospitals was “electric” and “very different to years gone by”. “Every nurse I know is up for it now,” he said. “The cost of living crisis has pushed people over the edge.

Suddenly, it’s like everyone has collectively realised just how close to poverty we all are. In previous years, I used to have to remind people to vote when we balloted over pay.

“Now people are coming up to me saying ‘where is my ballot?’ if they haven’t received their forms yet. The ballot only opened a couple of days ago.

“It’s not just how hard things are financially that’s changed things, it’s the fact that other people are fighting back. I think many colleagues have been inspired by the RMT rail workers and want to do the same.”

The Tories in Westminster imposed a “rise” of just 4 percent on health workers in England and Wales—around three times less than inflation. The Scottish government did little better, putting a meagre 5 percent on the table. There is currently no offer to NHS workers in Northern Ireland.

Tiny increases in NHS pay will do nothing to stop the exodus of staff because of the combination of stress, overwork and low wages. And it will do nothing to attract new people into working in the health service.

“NHS pay is directly linked to patient safety,” insists Matt. “I work in a community mental health team, and our services are in crisis because there are too few staff.

 “For example, if a local GP refers a patient to us who needs urgent care, the best we can offer is a first appointment in about six to eight weeks’ time. That can’t be right.”

That the RCN union has taken a clear, combative line over NHS pay has helped union activists convince members that the union is prepared to mount a serious fight. “What the national union is doing is great,” says Matt.

“They are actively encouraging people to vote yes. There are new posts of people’s ballot papers with yes to strikes being posted all the time on social media.

“They are using a phone bank to ring up thousands of members to ask them to vote yes, and that’s getting results.” But Matt thinks that activists on the ground will play the crucial role in the ballot. “We are the ones who get face-to-face with people,” he said.

“You have to speak to two or three colleagues, convince them, and then ask them to talk to two or three more. That’s how we win.

“If you run a lunchtime stall at a hospital entrance, over two or three days you are going to get to most of staff, so that’s important too. We must be visible in the workplace.”

“Our message to new health secretary Therese Coffey, and the rest of the government has to be, there can be no plan for the future of the NHS without increasing our pay—and we are prepared to strike to win that.

“In the RCN, we’ve got just three weeks left to turn that into reality. We’ve all got to get the strike vote out.”

Ambulance workers to vote over wages disgrace

The GMB union is also gearing up for action over NHS pay. The union is set to launch strike ballots in ambulance services in Yorkshire, London, the North West of England, the North East of England, East of England, the East and West Midlands and at three ambulance services on England’s south coast.

In Yorkshire, some 90 percent of the union’s almost 1,500 members voted for walkouts in a recent consultative ballot.  Stuart Richards, GMB senior organiser, said, “Ambulance workers should be out on the streets trying to save lives—instead they’re worrying about feeding their own families.

“It’s a national disgrace. The Conservatives have been in power for more than 12 years and during that time our ambulance services have crumbled.”

Reject any trade off for a deal in Scotland talks

The Unite and Unison unions have launched strike ballots across Scotland as part of the NHS pay fight. So has the Royal College of Midwives and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists.

Some 50,000 Unison members began voting on Monday, with a recommendation to back walkouts. The Unite union, which represents key technical staff, such as laboratory technicians and radiographers, has targeted some 2,500 workers across regional and national health boards.

That includes its members working for the Scottish Ambulance Service and in emergency control rooms. The flurry of ballots forced Scottish health secretary Humza Yousaf to talk up the possibility of a better offer.

“I will be doing everything in my power to prevent industrial action,” he said last week.  He added that “includes in our next meeting with trade unions, coming forward with a significantly improved pay offer for them.”

But Yousaf was also clear that he would trade off increased pay against money for vital NHS services. That means any offer is still likely to be well below the rate of inflation—and should be rejected.

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