The government's recommendation of a measly 1% pay rise for NHS workers has been widely seen as a kick in the teeth. Protests across the country were sparked following the announcement, reigniting the activists who organised sizeable street protests last July-September.
Nurses United (a group inside RCN) and others in Healthworkers Say No to Pay Inequality have for months spearheaded campaigning for a 15% pay rise (with a £3,000 minimum). The GMB and Unite are following this demand. The RCN calls for 12.5%. Unison has a £2,000 flat rate demand, which looks like it's copied from the flat-rate pay rise the French government conceded to health workers after strikes and demonstrations there.
Street protests must continue. With the government now on the defensive about the right to protest, activists can hope to push back against and block police action like the move to disperse a health workers' protest and fine an organiser £10,000 in Manchester on 7 March. The protests need to challenge the myth of a trade-off between the public and private sector that is pushed by the Tories.
Within the unions we need to make the case for industrial action clearly and lay the ground for ballots as soon as possible. In every workplace strikes are an essential tool in demanding improvements. Health workers will always be concerned for the welfare of patients. But history has demonstrated that organising emergency cover need not prevent effective strikes. We should also start advocating for solidarity action from other sectors.
All the health unions have condemned the 1% announcement. The RCN [Royal College of Nursing] announced the opening of a strike fund of £35 million. The other unions, Unison, Unite, and GMB, are making initial preparations for industrial ballots.
The Labour leadership followed suit. They have accusing the Tories of reneging on their previous promise of 2.1% but remained quiet on what figure the Labour leaders themselves would support.
The 1% figure is the government proposal to the Pay Review Body, which is the official arbiter on NHS pay for the year from April 2021, and will recommend in May. After the PRB recommendation, the government is due to decide on pay "awarded".
In the 2020 Spending Review the government excluded health workers from the general public sector pay freeze, and said that they would honour the PRB process. The 2.1% figure was included in the ten-year NHS plan and was in theory the overall pay figure allowed for across the NHS budget.
There is a danger that the 1% figure has been given high profile, and that if the government accepts a slightly higher (but still very low) PRB recommendation come May, that will look like a "victory". Activists will push the trade unions and Labour to go for a settlement which at least begins to make up for previous years of real wages being eroded by inflation. In 2019 the GMB union estimated that the average NHS worker had lost 13% on real wages (relative to RPI) between 2010 and 2018, and some large groups 19%.
Unions should ballot now and can protest against the delayed PRB process to do this. Even if the process does not move forward until the PRB reports, we should be ready to ballot immediately at that point.
The anti-union laws create a significant hurdle for the health unions. The Trade Union Act 2016 makes a majority for action invalid unless it is at least 40% of those entitled to vote, and getting sufficient turnout in postal ballots is difficult for a large workforce dispersed over many sites and sectors. The unions should work together and consider the best way to overcome this. For example, having "disaggregated' ballots should be considered.
We need to ensure that bureaucratic division and competition between unions and differing pay claims is not allowed to stand in the way of effective action. Immediately cross-union rank-and-file committees should be established to boost the cross-union unity that the street protests last July-September had.