By Yuri Prasad
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2811

Prepare to confront this NHS pay insult

This article is over 1 years, 9 months old
It's necessary to push union leaders to organise action
Issue 2811
Nurses and other health workers fighting over NHS pay with a banner telling Boris Johnson to pay up or get out

The pay campaign last year did not produce the NHS pay rise workers wanted. This time it has to be different (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Hundreds of thousands of health workers will again be told their annual NHS pay rise will be well below inflation. That’s the shocking conclusion of the NHS Pay Review Body (PRB), whose findings were leaked at the end of last week.

Sources say the PRB will likely recommend health workers in England and Wales get an increase of between 4 and 5 percent—a massive real terms pay cut. The Scottish government earlier this month offered a paltry 5 percent rise—and the Unison union s holding a ballot to reject it.

But the Tories could veto even a rise of 4 percent. The Tories want to hold public sector pay settlements down to just 3 percent this year and may choose to make an example of the NHS.

Union leaders have reacted to the news with fury. Even the ultra-moderate Unison head, Christina McAnea, has told her members in the NHS that Unison needs to be “strike ready”.

Long-standing nurse and Unison union activist Janet Maiden says the mood around pay has become more militant as the cost of living crisis bites.

“The people I work with, mainly experienced nurses, are becoming desperate and angry,” she told Socialist Worker. “Many of them are on higher pay grades, and have been around for a long time, so are at the top of the increment scale. But even they say they are running out of money before the end of the month.

“Lots of people watched last week’s rail strike on TV and said, maybe we should be more like them. Some have gone further, saying, we should be out too. But there’s a big gap to close between that sentiment and the ability to take action.”

Janet says that the union cannot simply ballot on the pay offer, and then expect to win a strike vote. “The union has to change and encourage a different culture of workplace activism, one that is most associated with the left.

“That means lots of face-to-face ward meetings. There you might talk to two or three members, but you’ll have the ears of five or even ten more. That’s the only way the union can get the result and turnout it needs. 

“Unfortunately, at present too much of the union’s propaganda is conducted through Whatsapp and emails. It’s all too top-down.

“We need to remember that there now lots of staff who have never been involved in any form of industrial action before. It’s been more than ten years since our last national strike. So we have to be able to answer their questions and give them confidence.”

A changed culture could mean the union bringing activists together across whole cities or regions to help make a battleplan to win a strike ballot.

“We need to get the best people from every hospital and facility in the city in a room together, regardless of what their position in the union is,” says Janet.  “And we need to prime them with a strategy and give them the resources they need. Then we should report back every couple of weeks to see how we are getting on, and to learn from each other.

“That’s how we used to do it in the past – and it worked.”

NHS workers shouldn’t expect any help from Labour’s Keir Starmer. Last week his spokesperson said, “We are well aware that people are suffering as a result of the cost of living crisis. ‘But we respect the work of the public sector pay review bodies and it’s their job to come forward with recommendations.”

The spokesperson added, “Our starting point would be to look at what the pay review bodies come forward with and our assumption would be that that would be what we would support.”

Unison is the biggest health service union but the battle is similar in the others. The mood of anger over the cost of living crisis, combined with the confidence of seeing other workers fighting back, creates a brilliant opportunity to win action over NHS pay.

It’s vital activists don’t allow union leaders to throw away this chance to fight and win.

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