By Yuri Prasad and Isabel Ringrose
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Big picket lines and solidarity as nurses strike

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RCN union members are out again on Thursday—and set for more strikes on 6 and 7 February
Issue 2839
Nurses strike. On the march in London. Migrant workers with large placard 'No If, no but, no NHS cuts'

Anger against the Tories on the nurses’ march in London (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Thousands of nurses at 55 Trusts in England on Wednesday braved freezing conditions to mount a second round of strikes. Socialist Worker supporters across the country report big and lively picket lines buoyed by massive public support for the 48-hour action.

From “absolutely massive” numbers at UCH hospital in central London, to the 178-person headcount in York, to the “determined” dozens in Harrogate—the picture of defiance on big pickets was repeated time and again.

Members of the RCN union are fighting for a bigger pay rise than the £1,400 a year below inflation payment the Tories imposed on them late last year.

With the NHS in a daily life or death struggle, the health unions’ fight for decent pay is not just about the cost of living crisis, but is a vital part of defending the service.

In Teddington, on the south west fringes of London, the mood was jubilant but angry. One striker told Socialist Worker that they were out because they are “unable to give patients the excellent care they deserve”. A colleague added, “There’s just not enough hours in the day to provide care for our patients. We are not getting the support from the hierarchy to be able to do it.”

At King’s College Hospital in south east London, strikers were in high spirits. With drums and chanting on their picket line, numbers soon swelled to over 100 people. Passing ambulances sounded their sirens in support, while passing buses and cars honked continuously. Activists from the NEU, Unite, RMT and UCU unions also came to show their backing

Strikers chanted, “What do we want? Fair Pay” and “One, two, three, four, Rishi Sunak pay us more. Five, six, seven, eight, we need to negotiate.” Banners read, “You clapped for us, now stand with us” and, directed at the Tories, “While you were drinking, we were sinking”. Passers-by applauded and thanked the nurses for being on strike.

Liz is a clinical nurse specialist at the hospital. She told Socialist Worker, “It’s amazing being out on strike”.

Nurses' strike. Dozens of workers on a packed picket line in Dorchester

Dorchester was one of many very big picket lines

“We finally feel like we have a voice. We’ve often all felt the same, but now we have been brought together to do something about it. We’re out because we want to save the NHS in the long run. People aren’t dying because we’re out on strike. We’re out on strike because they’re dying.”

RCN council member and nurse Carol told Socialist Worker, “We’ve had enough. It’s hard to get up early then have nowhere to park, for instance, as nurses don’t get free parking. Then we work for long hours.

“And often we’re not paid for the overtime we do when our shift runs over. We have to stay until agency workers arrive.

“So many of us are thinking, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ We should love giving care—good care. But you go home feeling disappointed in the job and yourself.”

Carol says she worries about student nurses coming into the profession. “We should be giving them good quality placement—we need to keep them because they’re our future. But they end up just filling in because we’re so short-staffed. They don’t get proper supervision

“They don’t even get bursaries anymore, they have to work alongside studying to pay for everything—from rent to books. And they don’t do normal 9 to 5s in the hospitals.”

Solidarity shows potential for united action

As so often in recent nurses and ambulance strikes, public support has been backed by trade union solidarity.

From the picket line at the Christie hospital in Manchester, RMT rail union rep Clayton told Socialist Worker that he and his colleagues had collected hundreds of signatures on a card for the striking nurses.

“We came down to show solidarity because we knew that this was the first time these nurses have ever been on strike,” he told Socialist Worker. “And we wanted to say that this is everyone’s fight. When one union wins, all unions win.”

Many strikers told Socialist Worker that being on strike was having a politicising effect. At the Conquest hospital in Hastings, striker Antonia reported “a great atmosphere” on the picket line. “We’re all standing here together and there’s a real sense of comradery,” she said.

“We’re fighting for a fair pay rise. But we’re fighting for a hell of a lot more. It’s about the survival of the NHS.

“The NHS is short of 47,000 nurses. Without them we’re not going to get waiting lists down, we’re not going to get operations done and we’re going to have ambulances queuing outside the hospital. Enough is enough.”

Carol at King’s agrees and doesn’t think the Tories “are fit for government or rule”.

“Nurses we love fixing things and making them work,” she added. “But no one is listening. And our goodwill is being taken advantage of, which is frustrating. I’ve invited Rishi Sunak to do a 12-hour shift to see if he can cope. They’re not bothered.

“I think the wealth of a country is based on its health. We’re failing the elderly, vulnerable and a lot of people.”

The confidence on picket lines across England shows that striking health workers have the strength to win this fight. And, with ambulance workers’ unions announcing strikes for next week, and a joint strike with nurses on 6 February, pressure on the Tories is building.

Ministers are desperate for a way out, and that means some are openly talking up the need for a new deal. But the kind of offer they are mooting will do nothing to stop the NHS crisis, nor alleviate the ever-rising cost of living.

No union leader should be drawn into the trap of a small extra cash payment for this year combined with talks about the next pay round.

Carol says it’s “good” that the RCN has already called another two days of action. The four days so far are the first strikes the union has ever called.

“It’s important that we win,” she said. “And that means keep striking and knocking on the door until it opens.”

  • For pictures and videos of the strike on Twitter go here and on Instagram go here

Two thousand on the march in London

A huge crowd of striking nurses and their supporters gathered on the steps of UCH hospital in central London on the afternoon of  Wednesday’s strike. Some 2,000 people chanted, “Enough is enough” as they rallied for a march to Downing Street.

Nurse Janet Maiden, the Unison union branch secretary at the hospital, caught the mood of the crowd before it set off, saying, “We’re going to chant loud enough for Rishi Sunak to hear us. We can win and we will win.”

She ended her speech pointing to the danger of the Tories’ divide-and-rule strategy. “Migrants made our NHS,” she said to cheering. “We don’t scapegoat people that could be working here and saving lives.”

Black woman with fist raised leads nurses on the march

Nurses marching in London were determined to keep fighting until they win (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Critical care nurse, David, told Socialist Worker, “Without a decent pay rise the NHS will collapse.” He said the strike has been “fabulous, and it’s great there are bigger ones planned”. He added, “It’s easy to get workers to strike, keeping them in work—for the life and limb cover—is hard.

“The mood inside hospitals is angry, we’re all concerned about the future of the NHS. Now the strike is shaping up to a showdown.”

Workers in other unions, including the RMT, Aslef, Bectu and Unite, joined the march. So did the campaigns Stand Up To Racism, People’s Assembly and Keep our NHS Public.

Health worker Gloria told Socialist Worker, “The NHS is our life, if we don’t have our health we don’t have anything. But the Tories attack it and its workers. That’s completely shameful.”

She added, “Protests and strikes will save the NHS. It’s the only way the government will listen to us. The Tories don’t care about the health service because they never cared about poor people. They want to destroy the NHS so they can sell it to their friends.”

Health worker Sarah said. “We have millions of people behind us,” she said. “And, with strikes in other sectors, such as education, the government has a fight on their doorstep. Rishi Sunak must learn that we won’t stop protesting until we save the NHS.”

  • Some names have been changed.

Sam Ord

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