Health workers struck for a second 4-hour block on Monday 24 November.
Although the strike may not be the most militant on record, there is some evidence that the NHS pay dispute is gaining momentum and the unions are turning up new activists.
Despite painfully timid leadership, the dispute has become a rallying point for health workers concerned about NHS cuts and privatisation.
If it is going to grow and be successful then those new activists need to turn outwards and convince the large numbers of strikebreakers to join us and create a renewed union movement.
Many healthworkers crossed picket lines on Monday with a kind grin on their faces and the words “Thank you for fighting for us”. We can't blame them. They were acting as consumers of trade unionism.
The unions have also fallen into this trap. All too often the unions recruit members by selling themselves as an insurance policy — “essential cover for public sector workers”.
But the union isn't an insurance policy. It is a coordination of workers, organised by its most active members, standing ready to collectively withdraw their labour in disputes with the boss. The entire purpose and power of the union lies in its ability to organise strikes.
Others who crossed picket lines had an embarrassed grimace on their face. “My patient needs me” or “I can't afford it”. We have become so used to fire-fighting in the NHS that many health workers cannot see beyond the next crisis.
However, if we do not win this dispute and build a strong union movement in the NHS then we not only face a long future of pay freezes, but also a slow destruction of the NHS. This will harm our patients and it will harm us when we need the NHS in the future.
Finally, some crossed picket lines with their eyes to the floor saying “I'm not allowed to strike”.
By unthinkingly following management orders, we are contributing to the steady demise of our health service and acting against the long term interests of our patients. Health workers need to find a bit of courage and stand up for our own independent point of view. We need to find the confidence to challenge the orders that come down from on high, to think critically about what is happening in our workplaces and where necessary defy management — especially on strike days!
Over the last thirty years selling the service model, the unions have become hollowed out husks, run by full-time officials on comfortable salaries who don't understand the difficulties we face in our jobs or our lives. They have hobnobbed with management and have middle-class lifestyles and politics. They are a disruptive and obstructive force in the unions.
However, we will not get a bolder leadership or a more democratic union until health workers become active participants in shaping their unions and struggles.
The new activists thrown up by this struggle will need to learn the lessons quickly and turn out to convince others. Solidarity gets results!