By Brian Roberts
It now seems certain that the long-running NHS pay dispute will come to a head this autumn. UNISON is set to ballot for strike action during August, over the government’s “1% plus local bargaining” pay offer. A host of smaller staff organisations are likely to fall in line behind them.
The dispute is over two issues: the break-up of national pay and conditions by the introduction of local pay bargaining, and the limit of 3% effectively set by the government over any total rise. 800,000 NHS workers are facing a pay cut and the loss of national bargaining in one pay round!
The fact that all staff groups, barring doctors and senior managers, have been offered the same deal has led to a rare degree of unanimity amongst NHS unions in resisting the deal. So far, not one local pay deal has been accepted by staff across the whole country. As the time for talking has now long been passed, and the need for action is there for all to see, that unanimity is beginning to break up. The Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives — or, rather, their leaders — have both approached the Tories for separate talks on pay, and now seem unlikely to put up any opposition to local pay on principle. The RCN have campaigned under the slogan “3% for all nurses”, effectively accepting the government’s award.
UNISON have made two decisions during the campaign that may yet rebound on them, firstly dropping their 8.4% pay claim, and then tailing the RCN for the first months of the campaign, rather than preparing for action. The second has been disastrous in demobilising the campaign, leading to the union offering the government six weeks’ “grace” to come up with a better offer, after a 9-to-1 consultation result for a strike ballot, because its membership records weren’t in place to run a ballot!
The near-silence of UNISON officials over what their pay target actually is points towards the likelihood of them being willing to accept a consolidated national 3% award as a victory.
Ironically, this could open the way towards the acceptance of local deals, as UNISON branches realise that they could win more by local industrial action. Activists should ensure that 3% is not regarded as a target anywhere.
There has not been national action in the NHS for 13 years, and the majority of those taking action will be doing so for the first time, if the strike ballot is won.